26 December 2009

Less religion, more peace and goodwill

By Lee Marsden

Anyone unfortunate enough to have watched Fern Britten's sycophantic portrayal of Tony Blair's religion and his self-aggrandizing Faith Foundation on television recently would have been left feeling amazed at the former PM's brass neck. Rather than facing trial at The Hague for war crimes he continues to strut the world stage as a 'peace envoy' in the Middle East and has embarked on a new mission to increase the importance of religion among world leaders. While some may feel, even at Christmas time, that the world might benefit from rather less religion and more peace and goodwill, late convert to Catholicism Tony Blair believes that religion is the answer to all the world's problems.

Certainly the world's major religions, depending on which sections of their sacred texts are emphasised, have the capacity to encourage their followers to live by the golden rule of doing to others as they would have others do to them. Religion makes big claims about life both in the here and now and in any afterlife. With such big claims also come big responsibilities – for its followers and leaders to live lives worthy of the calling. Sadly, while many religious actors are engaged in social action that has the potential to transform lives many others seem to work tirelessly to bring their religion into disrepute.

In the past few weeks US conservative evangelicals have inspired a campaign in Uganda to persecute homosexuals with proposed legislation to imprison gay people and anyone aiding and abetting them, such as landlords who might rent them a room. Sexually active gay people carrying the HIV virus could face the death penalty. The offensive notion that homosexuality is an aberration which can be ‘cured’ is not just confined to Africa but is mainstream among US and British conservative evangelicals.

In Ireland, the Murphy Report into child sex abuse cases in the Dublin diocese has revealed decades of abuse by Catholic priests, which have been systematically covered up by the church. In acknowledging the seriousness of this scandal, in terms of damaged lives and the reputation to the church, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has called for the resignation of four bishops as sign of collective responsibility for the abuse of trust and authority perpetrated in the name of the church. Only one of the bishops has so far resigned with other church leaders refusing to take any responsibility for their role in covering up these crimes.

Pope Benedict has recently signed a decree extolling the virtues of Pope Pius XII, a next step to possible sainthood, for the church leader who did so little to prevent millions of Jews being exterminated in the holocaust. Oblivious to the sense of outrage expressed by Jewish organisations the Pope is waiting for the opportunity to assert that a miracle has occurred which he can attribute to the intercession of Pius XII.

Finally, the recent sentencing of Mehmet Goren to 22 years in jail for the murder of his 15 year old daughter Tulay has highlighted the issue of so-called 'honour' killings among predominantly South Asian and Middle Eastern ethnic groups in Britain. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers a minimum of twelve such killings occurs each year. Forced marriages are also a huge issue as hundreds of mainly young women are spirited off to South Asia each year to be married off against their wishes. Religious leaders dismiss these as cultural, rather than religious, practices and yet little effort is made to wipe them out. According to Diana Nammi of the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation in London "they may pay lip service to change but they have networks and contacts and they are not trying to change anything".

Maybe, rather than more religion, what is needed are more people who only do unto others as they would have done unto them.

19 December 2009

It's the climb

By Juliette Harkin

As we tuck into our festive dinner and settle down to watch TV this Christmas, Peter Offord, a Green Party councillor from Norwich, and a qualified art therapist, will be preparing to join over a thousand people on the Gaza Freedom March. This non-violent march will take place on the 31st December and marks a year since the Israeli military assault that killed and injured thousands of Palestinian civilians.

Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi have shown us that non-violent protest can deliver justice. In the fight for freedom, Mandela focused on the tough climb for recognition: "I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. […] I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended."

The marchers will enter Gaza from the Egyptian border and join hands with Palestinian students, teachers, doctors and academics to peacefully break the siege on Gaza. Gaza's borders are sealed by the Israeli military, creating prison-like conditions for the 1.5 million inhabitants.

Why do the activists care so much and why this conflict, when there is so much injustice around the world? Well, no western state supports the excesses of Mugabe's regime. We turned our backs on Apartheid South Africa and criticisms of the Sudanese government have been rightly very vocal.

On the other hand, Israel is positively aided and abetted by the US, the British and the European Union. The West provided the bombs, some of which were not used legally, including the use of white phosphorus bombs in civilian areas of Gaza. As we all ushered in 2009 Israel recklessly bombed a highly populated area that contained civilians. Sometimes Israeli leaflets or phone calls told citizens to leave their homes and yet they were locked in this tiny stretch of land and, unlike refugees fleeing war the world over, had nowhere to walk to safety. Israel bombed built up areas housing, schools and hospitals and it fired at ambulance crews. Civilians were beheaded or blown to pieces by illegally used weapons, or, if they were 'lucky', just mangled and crippled for life.

As far as the Israeli soldiers were concerned every Palestinian man, woman or child in Gaza was a potential terrorist. There were no civilians or humans, just the enemy.

What Israel did was as morally corrupt as the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Sovereign states, including ours, have a responsibility to act within the law, or else our world will never be a safe place free from terror. Israel gained its statehood to the detriment of the indigenous people and, as historian Avi Shlaim says, has subsequently chosen land-grabs over peace.

It is a sad indictment of our world's political system that we actually have to have rules for war – for war is surely a failure of politics – but we do and one of the world's most militaristic states, Israel, has been flouting them since the day it was born. Blair and Bush have set the bar so low now – complete disdain for international law and human rights - and guess what? Some rather unpleasant regimes around the world have jumped on this sordid bandwagon.

The organisers of the march, The International Coalition to End the Siege on Gaza, say that the "conscience of humankind is shocked", but this is not enough. The aim is clear: to "quicken" the conscience of the world towards a just solution for the Palestinians.

To understand more about what the march is all about and to see how you can support and help the marchers visit the website at http://www.gazafreedommarch.org/.

12 December 2009

Class War

By Lee Marsden

Gordon Brown's criticism that Conservative inheritance tax policy "seems to have been dreamt up on the playing fields of Eton" made some great headlines and revealed that the king of spin, Alastair Campbell is very much back in business.

While criticism of an inheritance tax policy, which proposes to provide a £1 billion tax cut for the wealthiest two percent of the population, is clearly justified, the media were quick to signal this as a change in tactics by Labour in a bid to steal the coming election by resorting to class war. An indignant David Cameron, filmed with the troops in Afghanistan, declared that this was "a petty, spiteful, stupid thing to do", adding that "what people are interested in is not where you come from, but where you’re going to".

Quite so, but what old Etonians and the nineteen millionaire members of the shadow cabinet fail to appreciate is that this is the point – where you're going to is overwhelmingly dependent on where you are from.

Class still determines winners and losers in British society. The seven percent of British children who are privately educated are four times more likely than those from state schools to achieve straight A’s at A Level, and three times more likely to go to university.

A private school education greatly increases the chances of admission to Oxford and Cambridge Universities, which in turn opens doors to the nation's top jobs. Three quarters of all judges, fifty percent of all senior journalists, and almost a third of all MPs were privately educated.

Senior civil servants, surgeons, bankers, and the Armed Forces top brass also disproportionately come from public schools. In contrast, two thirds of pupils from poorer social backgrounds don't even take A Levels and less than one percent of children who receive free school meals go on to achieve straight As at A Level. As overall exam results improve, significant numbers of mainly working class boys are leaving school without any qualifications whatsoever.

Private education enables parents to buy privilege and opportunity for their offspring denied to the vast majority of society. They emerge equipped with a confidence and sense of entitlement that puts them at a considerable advantage in securing prestigious university places, better paid employment and even seats in the cabinet. Independent schools argue that they also offer bursaries to children from poorer backgrounds but these are subsidised by the tax payer taking some of the best students from the state sector, improving the educational achievements of the private sector at the expense of the state sector.

A party that is led by people from enormously privileged backgrounds and seeks to perpetuate inequalities in society is, by its very nature, out of touch with the ordinary lives of the people it seeks to govern. The difficulty for Labour is that it too is out of touch with ordinary people. Eleven ministers seated at the Cabinet table were privately educated, even left wing stalwarts such as Diane Abbott send their children to private or selective schools, knowing the advantages that will accrue for their offspring.

It is a bit late in the day making an issue of class when for the past twelve years they have done so little to improve social mobility and increase life chances for the working class they once sought to represent.

The class issue, despite Cameron's protestations, is not about the politics of envy or spite but rather one of fairness and equality of opportunity. Cameron's policies may indeed have been dreamt up on the playing fields of Eton but Labour now has to convince its own supporters and the rest of the country that it is about creating level playing fields for all. Sound bites are all very well but will Brown actually offer any substance to making Britain a fairer society?

5 December 2009

No chocolates please – we're British

By Rupert Read

Have you noticed the insidious way in which newsagents nowadays not only have chocs and other sweeties right by the counter, trying to tempt you to impulse-buy them, but actually push them on you. At every train-station-shop, at most WH Smiths, and on and on they say, "And would you like this great big chocolate bar, for just a pound?", when you step up to buy something. They don't even bother putting discount labels on them any more. No; the cashiers are simply instructed to try to get you to add a big hunk of processed fat and sugar to your purchase, whether that purchase was a newspaper, a drink, or even some medicine…

Why does this get me annoyed? Because we are supposed to be a society that cares about people's health. A society that is trying to reduce obesity, cut heart attacks, live healthy… And yet we tolerate this relentless oiling of the wheels of capitalism, of 'the market', of the mega-corporations taking advantage of our wants and needs…

I decided to write this column the other day, when I just couldn't take it any more. The lady in front of me in the queue knew the cashier. The cashier, who seemed a very nice woman, said, "So do you want your usual treat as well, then?" The lady in front of me, who was clearly overweight and feeling it, said, "Well, maybe not today; it does all end up on my waistline…" She seemed sorry to disappoint the cashier… I felt sorry for her, having these opportunities to make herself fatter dangled in front of her all the time, and it being implied to her that she was a fool to turn down such a bargain…

As I say, the cashier seemed good-hearted. But I confess, when I got to the counter, and she started asking me whether I wanted a slab of fat and sugar to go with my paper, I just said a curt 'No', and awaited my change…

Of course, it's not only chocolates at the newsagents. This is just the most in-your-face example of something that really gets my goat: we pretend as a society that we are serious about things that we show implicitly – by our actions - we aren't really serious about at all:
  • Prominent quality newspapers tell us how important it is to reduce our climate-dangerous emissions-pollution – right alongside adverts that they are happy to run for flights to Glasgow for £1…
  • Corporations' PR people jet around the world – to go to conferences about and tell us how serious they are now about 'corporate social responsibility'. (The most responsible thing to do would of course be – to run the thing by video conference, instead!)
  • On my own campus, at UEA, you can tell that the place is 100% serious about learning – by the fact that the sign for the student bar is about three times as large and prominent as the sign for the library…
This has got to change. Let's get serious about kicking the fat habit, and stuffing ourselves with 'treats' that we will only regret, ten minutes (and ten years) later. Let's start taking action on dangerous climate change that is commensurate with the scale of the threat – we need to rein in flights, not advertise them madly at every opportunity.

Yes, we all know that choccies taste nice. But there's a time and a place. We've clamped down (a bit) on turkey twizzlers and alcopops. Let's start thinking like a nation, like a society - not like greedy kids. Let's say No Pushing Chocolates At The Counter Please – We're British…