Sunday 20 February 2011

Liberation & Healing

In Egypt, in Tahrir Square, there was a revolution taking place - not just a political revolution, but a revolution in the way people relate to one another. Salma El Tarzi, a 33-year-old Egyptian filmmaker who was previously not politically active, wrote:-
"I was one of many women, young and old, there. We were as active as the men. Some acted as nurses and looked after the wounded during the battles; others were simply helping with distributing water. But there were a great number of women that were on the front line hurling stones at the police and pro-Mubarak thugs.

The duties in the square were divided. We were very organised. Something changed in the dynamic between men and women in Tahrir. When the men saw that women were fighting in the front line that changed their perception of us and we were all united. We were all Egyptians now.

The general view of women changed for many. Not a single case of sexual harassment happened during the protests up until the last day when Mubarak stepped down. That is a big change for Egypt."
Similarly Mona Seif, a 24-year-old researcher, wrote:-
"I was amazed by the peoples’ determination to keep this peaceful even when we were under deadly attacks. When we caught the pro-Mubarak thugs, the guys would protect them from being beaten and say: 'Peaceful, peaceful, we are not going to beat anyone up’. That was when I started thinking: 'No matter what happens we are not going to quit until Mubarak leaves'. The spirit of the people in Tahrir kept us going ...

I have never felt as at peace and as safe as I did during those days in Tahrir. There was a sense of coexistence that overcame all of the problems that usually happen - whether religious or gender based ... We went through many ups and downs together. It felt like it had become a different society - there was one Egypt inside Tahrir and another Egypt outside.

The moment Tahrir opened up, we saw a lot of people that were not there before and there were reports of females being harassed.

I know that Egypt has changed and we will transfer the spirit of the square to the rest of the country. Before Tahrir if I was [harassed] I would refrain from asking people for help, because there are a lot of people that would disappoint you by blaming you. But I think the spirit of the revolution has empowered us to spread the feeling we established wider and wider."
The photo at the top of the page shows the aftermath - protesters out cleaning up the square, clearing out the mess. This was a very different revolution. Liberation is not just about politics, liberation is about how you live. A struggle for liberation is a struggle to learn how to live together. It is a struggle to make the world around you better, not worse.

Long ago, in the Bible, there is another story of a people set free, in Egypt. Those people left Egypt and went on to follow their own path elsewhere. Today the people from Tahrir Square want freedom within Egypt, liberation and healing inside their own land.

Jesus commemorated his people's freedom from Egypt, one Sabbath, by liberating a woman from 18 years of suffering. The religious authorities protested: somehow they missed the link.

Today, around the world, inside churches and outside, Jesus still brings liberation and healing. And religious authorities - some of them - still try to block him. But you can only delay liberation for so long: sooner or later God's Kingdom breaks through. Often in strange and unexpected ways: God's Spirit is unpredictable, but effective. God's Kingdom is all around us, sometimes it breaks into our lives and the lives of those we care for. Then everything changes.

I know some people in desperate need of liberation. Today, maybe this week, pray God sooner rather than later, my prayer is that the Kingdom will break through into their lives. It won't make life easy, but it will make it free. And that, I think, makes a huge difference.

Saturday 12 February 2011

'Interesting Times' In Africa

Egypt is in the news at the moment (so much so that I'll leave it to last, otherwise things will have already changed there by the time I finish). Over the past few months there have been several ongoing stories about African nations which are somewhat different from what has gone before, and which look likely to have long-term implications for much of the continent.

Sudan is currently the largest country in Africa. It is one of those countries created as a result of the carve-up of Africa by 19th-century colonial powers, whose borders bear little relation to the reality on the ground. In terms of geography, language, ethnicity, religion, wealth, health, you name it, northern and southern Sudan are distinctly different (not to mention various east-west divisions). After thirty years of civil war a peace agreement in 2005 gave the southerners a referendum, which was held early this year. The official results aren't out yet, but are known to be an overwhelming vote for secession; the new state is due to be formally created on July 9th, 2011. One possible complication is the tiny border region of Abyei, which has its own vote over whether to join the north or the south; as an ethnically mixed region this is going to cause problems.

The new country is certain to have many difficulties when it comes into being - poverty, oil, ethnic divisions, and a lot of guns all create problems. On a more individual level, there will be many families who will be moving from one side of the border to the other, and doubtless ethnically mixed families will face even greater prejudice and pressure, at least for a while. But the continent-wide issue arises from the simple fact that this will (hopefully) have been a successful secession: one section of an established African country will have split off to form a new country. However logical this move may be for Sudan, and however extreme a case the old Sudan was, this will encourage separatist movements across the continent. In ending this one civil war, there is a risk of provoking or exacerbating many others.

In Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) things have not been going so well. Another civil war was supposed to be ended with presidential elections last November. Except that the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, lost but refuses to stand down ... and has the army backing him. Nothing new there in African politics, but this time it has played out differently. The other West African nations, even (for a time) the African Union, got together to tell him to go. He didn't go, and some African leaders are getting a bit iffy about pushing him, but it remains a standoff in which other African states may be the deciding factor in forcing an ex-president to stand down. This would set an important precedent, and give hope to many African nations suffering under 'strong-man' rulers who stay in power through thugs and militias, rather than the ballot box. If Gbagbo goes under African pressure then maybe things really can change for the better across the continent.

I can't write about Cote d'Ivoire without mentioning chocolate, of course. Most mass-produced chocolate uses cocoa from Cote d'Ivoire, money from which goes to pay Gbagbo's army. The big exception is Cadburys (except in the US, where I'm told 'Cadburys' is just rebranded Hersheys); fair trade chocolate and many specialist chocolates also use higher quality cocoa from elsewhere. So your chocolate consumption may be making a small difference to the future direction of Africa.

Which brings us to Tunisia and Egypt. Very strange situations: long-term dictatorships overthrown by demonstrations which were not organised by any opposition party, or indeed by anybody much. Just tens of thousands of, mostly young, ordinary people going out on the streets to tell their government that they had had enough.

In Tunisia they won, at least for now. President Ben Ali, after 23 years in power, fled to Saudi Arabia. The rest of the regime attempted to cling on to their power, by setting up a supposed 'unity' government in which the RCD (Ben Ali's party) held the key ministries: defence, interior, finance and foreign - ie controlling the army, the police, the money, and relations with the rest of the world. Not an encouraging sign that they planned to break with the past. But continued demonstrations forced a change; now Tunisians must wait to see whether their 'jasmine revolution' will indeed bring democracy, freedom, and economic strength.

In Egypt the game goes on. Egypt is much bigger than Tunisia, and Mubarak's hold on power seemed much stronger, but when the people went out onto the streets the army refused to attack them openly (although behind the scenes arrests and torture went on). Yesterday (February 11th) Mubarak finally went: hundreds had been killed, vague promises and threats had been  made, but the protests just continued to grow. Crucially, younger members of the army are said to have sympathised with the protesters, whilst the old guard supported the regime, so the army remained relatively neutral.

Now we have the country being run by a committee headed by an army 'old guard' - Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Minister of Defence since 1991 and general commander of the armed forces since 1995. Strangely, western observers seem more cynical about this than Arab ones.

One remarkable feature of the Egyptian protests has been the way protesters have organised themselves, and have worked together. Telling images have involved them setting up their own management of people coming into Tahrir Square, and of them working together to protect one another: Christians standing guard during Muslim prayers and vice versa. Tyranny thrives on division: in much of Africa the tyrants thrive on ethnic differences and disagreements; in Arab countries it tends to be religious differences that they can use: fear of Islamists, hatred of other flavours of Islam, divisions between Muslim and Christian. To see the Egyptian people show that by working together they can defeat tyranny is an inspiring sight.

Another remarkable feature has been the western governments' dithering, way behind the curve of what's actually happening. The Obama administration, particularly Hilary Clinton, was busy backing Mubarak as a stable ally, then Omar Suleiman (Mubarak's right-hand man, and head of intelligence - known as 'the CIA's man in Cairo') was supposed to be the great hope for democracy. Finally Obama caught up that Egyptians actually wanted the sort of democracy where Egyptian people have some say in what goes on and where emergency rule and police crackdowns and torture aren't part of everday life. Even now the US look to be wanting to back the army old guard, apparently hoping that democratic aspirations can be kept to a minimum.

Nobody knows whether other North African (or indeed other Arab) states are vulnerable to these sorts of protests. Autocratic leaders are hurriedly making promises and rearranging governments, but Algeria, Morroco and Sudan seem potentially vulnerable. There seems to be some consensus that the critical point is whether the head of state is genuinely respected, or merely hated and feared. In a police state you can't really know that until the protests start, though, and by then it's too late.

So, interesting times indeed for Africa. Events occuring which seem genuinely different from what has been before. Whether this will end up as a blessing or a curse is yet to be seen; mostly that lies in the hands of the African people, in all their amazing diversity.

Sunday 6 February 2011

The Muggs At The Prince Of Wales

I wonder if they have two 'g's in their name because the band consists of two guitarists and a drum machine? Anyway, they were playing last night at a fairly quiet Prince of Wales, in Caversham; BlackLin and I went along and had a good time.

The Muggs played what you might term 'light rock' - ranging from Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison, to Coldplay and Travis, via the Eagles and 70's Fleetwood Mac. Not as exciting (for me) as heavy rock, but when I'm there with good company still very enjoyable. They combined an electric guitar with a twelve string, which worked well with this style of music, and their singer was in good voice. The drum machine was only used on some tracks, and wasn't at all intrusive (unusually). As often happens, the band warmed up as the evening went on (or maybe the audience just had more to drink), so by the end there were people up dancing, and I think all of us were tapping our feet.

It was interesting that last night felt like a quiet night at the PoW - there was a reasonable clientele really, but I have become used to Saturday night being busier. But it was nothing like fifteen months ago when the new landlords started doing live music and some evenings there was a brilliant band but hardly anyone there to enjoy it (for instance). If I'd wanted packed I should have gone Friday evening, apparently: the England/Wales game was on the big-screen TV, followed by a young local band, and the pub was heaving. It's really encouraging that such an excellent local community pub is doing well - particularly one that does such good beer and Thai food.

Incidentally, if you happen to have a website link for The Muggs, please let me know and I'll link them, with a picture if there's one available. Google didn't help me because 'The Muggs' seems to be an immensely popular band name.

Thursday 3 February 2011

Crusaders: Heroes, Villains Or Barbarians

Umayyad Caliphate, c750AD
"Tell me what to do", said the King upon his throne,
"but speak to me in whispers for we are not alone,
They tell me that Jerusalem has fallen to the hand
Of some bedevilled Eastern heathen who has seized the Holy land;"

Then the Chamberlain said "Lord, we must call upon our foes
In Spain and France and Germany to end our bitter wars,
All Christian men must be as one and gather for the fight,
You will be their leader, begin the battle cry,

Jerusalem is lost,
Jerusalem is lost,
Jerusalem is lost"...

Back when I was at school, the 'big picture' of history was mostly based around the major Mediterranean civilisations: Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Dark Ages, the Italian Renaissance, then the focus moves north for the Industrial Revolution and parliamentary democracy. There is a major omission from that list. Worryingly, even though the days when I studied history now count as history themselves, the list today would be pretty much the same.

Back in 1979, when Chris de Burgh released the song Crusader, from which the verses above were taken, it was taken for granted that crusaders were heroes, working together to free the Holy Land  from heathen invaders. In recent years the pendulum has swung completely the other way: I recently heard a (geographically-challenged) preacher talking about the Crusades as an example of early European oppression of black people. Either way the picture is of civilised Europeans attacking primitive Arabs. Which displays deep ignorance, as well of a degree of probable racism.

Back at the time of the First Crusade the Muslim Empire was the superpower of the era (at least in the West). Militarily, economically, scientifically and culturally it was the overwhelmingly dominant western civilisation. From its beginnings in the Arabian Peninsula, it had swept west across the top of Africa, then turned north to invade Europe through Spain. To the east, it reached as far as India, and to the north pushed up through the Middle East and into Anatolia (Turkey, as it is now known). The trigger for the First Crusade was when the Islamic advance turned west from Anatolia heading for Europe from the east.

Guarding the south-eastern entrance to Europe was the battered remains of the old Eastern Roman Empire (at this stage pretty much reduced to Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria and the western end of Anatolia). The rest of Europe was a patchwork of tiny barbarian states, continually fighting one another. To emphasise: at this time the Muslims were the cultured, civilised superpower, and the Europeans were the uncultured, uncivilised barbarians. As the 11th Century progressed the Islamic superpower was inexorably advancing upon Eastern Europe. Finally, in 1095, the Byzantine leader, Alexios I, called for help from Pope Urban II, in Rome.

The religious situation in Europe at the time was odd. After the assorted barbarian tribes had swept across Europe as the Roman Empire collapsed, Christian missionarise went out, against the tide, spreading the word of Jesus amongst them. Afterwards the Roman Church did the diplomacy thing amongst the leaders of the new states, with the result that pretty much all of the 11th Century European states considered themselves Christian. So when the Pope sent out the word (in suitably vague terms) that Muslim armies had invaded and taken the holy city of Jerusalem, people across the whole of Europe responded. The barbarian states sent their men, from kings to peasants, to defend 'Christendom' (and, incidentally, Europe). Then they went back to fighting one another.

Much has been made of the way the Crusader armies behaved during this time. Basically they behaved barbarically - which is not unexpected from barbarians. But this was also a time when people who had never been more than half-a-day's walk from their homes, set off on a two thousand mile journey to fight for what they believed to be right. Barbarian or no, many crusaders were heroic in their commitment. And the Crusades did successfully delay the Islamic invasion of Europe by almost 4 centuries (Constantinople finally fell in 1453). Eventually the Muslim armies of Suleiman the Magnificent reached Vienna, in 1529, but that was their high-water mark.

In summary: the First Crusade was a defensive war by European barbarians against an invading Islamic superpower, in which the Europeans behaved barbarically.