Sunday, 17 May 2015

Gavin Ashenden and the Broad Historical Context

Gavin Ashenden writes: “The local newspaper have refused my column on Islamophobia claiming it is too controversial. Cranmer -the blogger - who likes it very much , will run it instead.”

His blog is about the threat posed by a Labour government making “Islamaphobia” a crime, forbidding criticism of Islam. As there is already legislation against religious hatred in the UK, he is suggesting that any criticism of Islam will be treated as Islamaphobia.

In fact, I believe it is his own kind of fear mongering that is more damaging to the cause of peace. I;ve heard him on BBC Radio Jersey say in all seriousness that violence in Islam would be prevented if Muslims converted to Christianity, because Christianity is a religion of peace. For someone who looks to the historical record to criticism Islam, this is surely a case of a pot calling the kettle black, or to take a parable from Christianity, of someone with a log in his own eye looking at specs of dust in another.

Here is something of what he says about Islam, in which he paints a picture that Islam’s roots are mired in violence, hence today’s practitioners even if they are kind, good Muslims, have beliefs tainted by that past:

“Is ISIS extreme or radical ? Between 622 and 632 Mohammed led 74 violent expeditions against people who refused accept or follow him. After the Battle of the Trench, he executed – by cutting off their heads – between 600 and 900 Jewish men women and children who had simply failed to overtly support him.”

“Any attribution of extremity needs to assessed in a broad historical context. What is that context? Islam’s record of violence over the last 1400 years amounts to something like 270 million non-Muslims killed – because they were non-Muslims. It set out to destroy the Christian civilisation in all the Middle East, Egypt, Turkey, North Africa (where St Augustine of Hippo was based), and succeeded. It didn’t kill only Christians (estimated at 60 million) but also 10 million Buddhists, and 80 million Hindus. Persian Zoroastrian culture and African animists were also wiped out.”

So why did Jews flee Christian Europe in the Middle Ages and seek refuge in Islamic countries like Spain if Islam was so nasty? In Spain under its Christian rulers, Jews were treated like dirt, persecuted, but when it was taken over by the forces of Islam, they could live without fear of persecution. Unfortunately Spain was retaken by the Christians, and Jews were persecuted once more.

Gavin asks use to look at “ broad historical context”. Well, let’s look at a broad historical context with respect to Christianity to see its own record of violence:

And note on the rejection of his article by the Jersey Evening Post, Gavin says: “It's only a list of facts... How can facts be controversial?”

Well, here are a few facts! In fact, a few key historical similarities between extreme Muslims and Christians in the past:

Destroying Pagan Heritage Sites and Killing Pagans

The Islamic state is engaged in this now; Christianity itself has a black mark in its own past.

As soon as Christianity was legal (315), more and more pagan temples were destroyed by Christian mob. Pagan priests were killed.

Between 315 and 6th century thousands of pagan believers were slain.

Examples of destroyed Temples: the Sanctuary of Aesculap in Aegaea, the Temple of Aphrodite in Golgatha, Aphaka in Lebanon, the Heliopolis.

Christian priests such as Mark of Arethusa or Cyril of Heliopolis were famous as "temple destroyers."

Pagan services became punishable by death in 356.

Christian Emperor Theodosius (408-450) even had children executed, because they had been playing with remains of pagan statues.

According to Christian chroniclers he "followed meticulously all Christian teachings...".

In the early fourth century the philosopher Sopatros was executed on demand of Christian authorities. 

In the 6th century pagans were declared void of all rights.

Taking Peoples Away from Families into Slavery

Boko Haram is doing this today; Christianity has done this in the past.

The Church enjoyed 1,500 years during which it had had the power to ban slavery but had failed to do so, or even to have expressed any desire to do so.

George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards both kept slaves, and ‘The Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts’ owned many slaves in the Caribbean

While important early figures saw slavery as troubling, over time the Society accommodated its message to slaveholders, advocated for laws that tightened colonial slave codes, and embraced slavery as a missionary tool. The SPG owned hundreds of enslaved people on its Codrington plantation in Barbados, where it hoped to simultaneously make profits and save souls. In Africa, the Society cooperated with English slave traders in establishing a mission at Cape Coast Castle, at the heart of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts branded its slaves on the chest with the word SOCIETY to show who owned them.

Churchmen owned slaves and were not particularly notable as good masters. Indeed some of the worst masters were clergymen. In the court of St Ann's in Jamaica in 1829, the Rev. G. W. Bridges was charged with maltreating a female slave. For a trivial mistake he had stripped her, tied her by the hands to the ceiling so that her toes hardly touched the ground, then flogged her with a bamboo rod until she was a "mass of lacerated flesh and gore" from her shoulders to her calves. Cases like this rarely came to court, but when they did they generally ended in acquittal, as in this case, so the Reverend gentleman walked free.

Anglicans involved in slavery often poured their ill-gotten gain into Church coffers. It was a good investment with a high return for small outlay.

And in cities such as Bristol, the church bells pealed when Wilberforce's anti-slave trade Bills were defeated in Parliament.

The Crusades

Gavin Ashenden writes:

“I was taught at school that the Crusades were an overflow of Norman violence; younger sons restive for booty. I remember only too well writing in essays that it was the dispossessed younger sons who trekked off to smite a few Saracens. In fact, all the recent research tells us that this was nonsense. There was no such distinction amongst those who risked their lives and their lands in response to a plea for help. The facts are that as Islamic armies spread up through Palestine, and Syria, just as ISIS is spreading in Iraq today, Christians living there begged for help and protection. The crusades were a response to that plea for help in the face of violent Islamic military expansion”

Well, let’s have a few facts.

There can be little doubt that the Fourth Crusade, in particular was composed of people out to get booty. Historian Jonathan Philips notes in a recent edition of History Today:

“The capture of Constantinople by the armies of the Fourth Crusade was one of the most remarkable episodes in medieval history. One of their number wrote, ‘No history could ever relate marvels greater than those as far as the fortunes of war are concerned’. On April 12th, 1204, an army of perhaps 20,000 men and a fleet of about 200 ships crewed by Venetian sailors and warriors, broke in and began to loot the greatest metropolis in the Christian world. Constantinople’s mighty walls had resisted numerous onslaughts as the Avars, Persians and Arabs had tried to assail its defences over the centuries. Yet always ‘the queen of cities’, as the Byzantines described their capital, had survived. What had brought the crusaders to attack their fellow Christians and how did they manage to succeed? The crusaders understood their success as a manifestation of God’s will. One commented, ‘There can be no doubt that the hand of the Lord guided all of these events’.”

Now the Crusaders looted, terrorized, and vandalized Constantinople for three days, during which many ancient and medieval Roman and Greek works were either stolen or destroyed. The famous bronze horses from the Hippodrome were sent back to adorn the facade of St Mark's Basilica in Venice, wherein they still remain. As well as being stolen, works of immeasurable value were destroyed merely for their material value. One of the most precious works to suffer such a fate was a large bronze statue of Hercules, created by the legendary Lysippos, court sculptor of no lesser than Alexander the Great. Like so many other priceless artworks made of bronze, the statue was melted down for its content by the Crusaders.

Was this soldiers restive for booty? Or were they as one said “seeing the hand of the Lord” in their actions? It doesn’t really matter: either way, how they acted was reprehensible. These were not civilised armies to defend a holy right; they were armed thugs using Christianity as a justificiation for their atrocities, their greed, their grabbing booty.

And as the History site notes (and most other historians confirm this) on the difference between Crusaders and the greatest Islamic leader, Saladin:

“Saladin has been held up as a chivalrous historical figure who fought fairly - when the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099 they carried out mass murder, whereas when Saladin re-took it in 1187 following the defeat of the King of Jerusalem at the Battle of Hattin near the Lake of Galilee, he allowed inhabitants to leave the city safely. He called this a ‘just war’ and said that his actions were out of respect for Jerusalem’s status as a holy city. Despite his fierce opposition to the Christian powers, Saladin also had a respectful relationship, if one built on rivalry, with King Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart). When Richard was wounded in battle against Saladin, the latter offered his personal doctor to Richard.”

Don’t let us whitewash the Crusades in an effort to blacken Islam, as Gavin Ashenden appears to want to do. That’s the kind of rhetoric that got America to invade Iraq.

And in Conclusion

I personally don’t believe we should judge Christianity on how some (in some cases many) Christians have behaved in the past.

For instance, on slavery, with some notable exceptions like Tom Paine, the majority of the abolitionists were in fact Christian. That paragon of enlightenment thinking about freedom and tolerance, John Locke, invested in slavery.

Gavin Ashenden writes:

“I had recently left school and received an expensive education. But at no point do I remember anyone drawing my attention to the fact that one and a half million Armenian Christians had been systematically slaughtered by the Muslim Turkish Government in a programme that started in 1915, half a century ago then – and the centenary of which occurs now.”

Why should he have been? History at school is by its nature selective – it has to be. There is a vast amount of it, both British and global, and some things have to be left out. The intelligent schoolboy or girl may do some more general reading on their own, and should be encouraged to do so, because there are not enough hours in the day otherwise.

Did anyone draw his attention to the compensation scheme which paid recompense by the British government to the very large number of Anglican clergy who had invested in slave owning plantations? Probably not, and yet that was closer to home. Did anyone tell him about the 80,000 or so people burnt for witchcraft by deluded Christians in the height of the witch craze of the 16th and 17th centuries? Probably not.

I was not taught it in school, but neither was I taught the systematic purging and destruction of the vestiges of Paganism by Christianity. In fact, if he had been taught that it occurred, but was not a genocide, then I would be concerned about his education. Simply to be ignorant of events does not imply sinister forces at work in an Orwellian educational regime.

Christianity has just as dark a history as Islam, but a history of Christianity which just focused alone on the darker times would ignore the greater goods that it has also brought to humanity. Just because I have listed some of what might be termed crimes of Christianity does not mean that I do not also think that Christianity has also been capable of great good. And the same can be said of Islam.

It seems almost a rule that the potential for good and evil are like a seesaw, and the greater the power for good can come from a religion or ideology, the greater the power for evil can also emerge. This should not be altogether unexpected. A great leader can take a nation forward to make the world a better place. A great dictator can ruin millions of lives.

And I believe we should not focus wholly on the pathology of religion.

An analogy comes from the news. News reporting is invariable bad news rather than good news. But as Stephen Jay Gould noted:

“Every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the ''ordinary'' efforts of a vast majority

“We have a duty, almost a holy responsibility, to record and honour the victorious weight of these innumerable little kindnesses, when an unprecedented act of evil so threatens to distort our perception of ordinary human behaviour.” 


Póló said...

Gavin Ashendan would have been great at giving out soup during the Great Irish Famine.

Póló said...

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