Category Archives: History

Who is Mohammed? (and who can answer?)

” Who is Mohammed?”

This was the rather arresting headline on the front page of Brother Ivo’s free local newspaper. With such an attention grabbing front page it thereby avoided being cast aside unread, and partial answers were seen to be offered in the words of George Bernard Shaw, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Carlisle and others, all offering respectful opinions telling us how unique, compassionate and utterly admirable he was.

How much these alleged character witnesses knew of the man is not entirely clear, yet their high opinion of the Muslim prophet was plainly advanced to whet our appetites.

If the present tense of the headline had not alerted him, the offer at the foot of the page gave the game away, with a website offering to take the reader to the Qu’ran online and a telephone number to call to obtain a free copy.

This was paid advertising.

It was all very enterprising.

Who this man Mohammed was, is indeed an interesting and important question in the modern world, so putting the question into the public domain is superficially to be welcomed, and yet, it brings with it, a necessary corresponding question. Can any alternative view be safely advanced examined and published?

Can it be said in a local newspaper that , for example , Mohammed was a trader whose travels around the Arabian peninsular brought him into contact with the Gnostic Christian heresies which fled and established themselves there after being rejected by orthodox Christianity at the Council of Nicea?

Could one advertise, or respond through the letters page that his reporting of Christian historic belief and doctrine was/is demonstratively false and misleading – something which God is not likely have got wrong had the Qu’ranic revelation truly been a Godly revelation?

Might anyone say that Mohammed became a warlord capable of generosity and mercy, yet also according to Islamic sources, responsible for the murder of prisoners, a whole tribe of Jews,  the poisoning of critics and the sexual abuse of his 9 year old child bride?

Will anyone explore the circularity of his truth claims?  Mohammed is God’s final prophet, so says the Qu’aran, brought to you exclusively by Mohammed who is to be believed because he is God’s prophet etc..etc

Would the paid advertisers allow others to engage with the question by pointing out that if Mohammed lived today, the principle question raised by the modern secularists would be whether he should appear first before the Central Criminal Court, the International Court at The Hague for modern day war crimes, , or the Child Protection Court?

It may be unduly sceptical, but Brother Ivo will not be looking at the letters pages over the next few weeks in expectation of vigorous theological jousting, neither will he encourage others to offer paid advertising of a contrary opinion to those encouraging us to embrace Mohammed and his reported revelations.

It is much to be welcomed that Muslims have taken the trouble and paid the costs of putting the question “out there”. The problem is that a full engagement will not occur because the newspaper will censor serious critical engagement with the chosen question, not least, lest some of Brother Ivo’s identified issues be raised.

None of them are new, yet all are legitimate questions.

Nobody is similarly inhibited over questioning Christianity.

If Brother Ivo declared” Jesus is Lord”another can, and doubtless will riposte “Oh no he isn’t”, and Brother Ivo accepts that as a price worth paying for the freedom to speak the truth as he sees it. That is the Faustian bargain that believers and non believers have struck in order to create the largely tolerant free flow of ideas within our society and this is precisely what differentiates it from the intolerant regimes that many have fled, together with the violence and strife that follows soon after.

It is not that we have avoided intolerance; rather we have learnt to live with challenges to our values as the least worst option.

Even if the newspaper were to be willing to put its editor and staff at risk, many in the community will have taken note of what has happened in Paris and Copenhagen to those bold enough to apply criticism to the object of Islamist veneration. Many will avoid engaging with the question posed – and that too is a betrayal  of our most valued contribution to peaceful society – the honest and peaceful acceptance of difference of opinion.

When historian Tom Holland wrote and presented a critically acute historical examination of a Islam for Channel 4, ” Islam The Untold Story”, it did not make it to a public screening: such were the sensitivities of Mohammed’s admirers which the broadcasters were at excessive pains to protect. Most people know this and act accordingly, censoring criticism rather than risk controversy. That is how religious freedom dies, not with a bang but a whimper.

All this presents a Brother Ivo with another of his many paradoxes.

He wants to welcome the decision of some Muslims to ask their question, but can only do so provisionally. Engaging in public religious discourse in a pluralistic society carries responsibilities as well as rights. If one asks open questions about one’s faith, all involved have to expect and accept an uncensored and potentially offensive subsequent debate.

So do we have it – or do we walk away?

A very French Tea Party

The late Harold McMillan once remonstrated with Oswald Mosely about his rather absurd attempt to import Nazi militarism into British politics. “When British people take to the streets”, he said, “they do so in tweed jackets and flannel trousers, not black shirts”. A similar rejection of strident politics was expressed by PG Wodehouse, whose Bertie Wooster encountered an unpleasant but absurd crypto-fascistic leader Sir Roderick Spode Leader of “the Black Shorts”.

Britain has its own way of taking down such figures, which is why we don’t tend to have them succeed: it is why there is absurdity in some of the more extravagant abuse of UKIP and its affable leader, who , it must be said, would be most unlikely to leave a beer hall to take to the streets. Nobody has been attacked by UKIP supporters, who, unlike its more extreme opponents like, say, Occupy or the “Anti-Fascist Union” have never gone in for storming buildings, fighting the police or breaking windows.

This is not going to be the case in every European country which rejects the inevitable economic failures of the Left. In countries which do not share our history and culture it can be a rather more extreme affair, and inevitably it is not always mildly defeatable by Wodehousian wit.

In France people have turned to the Front National which has been around for many years without ever looking like making the progress we saw last night. Those who conflate the UK and French expression of anti-EU sentiment betray not only a lack of understanding of the British phenomenon, but also the French.

The French right has a long and specific heritage. Probably every country has.

From the days of the French revolution, there was a monarchist rump. The secular anti-clericalism exposed a conservative Catholic element that was not always choosy in its bedfellows. The immigration stimulated by Eastern European pogroms brought a latent anti-Semitism to the surface, which saw expression in the Dreyfus trial. The patriotism of the First World War saw the unemployed congregating into politicised ex-military associations which were very different from our own benign British Legion.

The humiliating collapse of France in 1940 resulted in an attempt to retrieve a spurious “honour” by creating a fiction that they had accommodated Hitler rather than been routed, aformer National hero Philippe Petain led a movement which was not so very different to our own “Stop the War Coalition” which saw first Vichy France and then the splitting of the right into Petainist and Gaullists.

Post war, De Gaulle re-built France and the Common Market upon the fiction that “France had liberated herself”: this meant he had to exclude the Anglo-influence which stood as an uncomfortable reminder of the truth. He swiftly ran into trouble with Algeria which is pivotal in understanding the rise of the NF.

Algeria had been the bastion of a Free undefeated France. Metropolitan. Most British people do not know that it was a part of Metropolitan France. Had it not secured independence, France would already have an Islamic country. It fought a bitter war for Independence and expelled 900,000 “Pied Noir” – French settlers who settled Southern France who brought their own perspectives and resentments back to the mother country.

This was symbolic. To lose that part of France which had preserved honour however imperfectly, whilst Metropolitan France collaborated was dreadful for the national psyche.

it was from that Algerian war which cost 100,000 French casualties which formed the wounded Jean Marie Le Pen who created the National Front. It was a dirty war which France still finds difficulty in addressing honestly.

Unlike the UK’s de-colonisation there was a renewed and deep sense of national shame at losing part of the mother country with Algerian independence.

Within that same generation , the Poujardist movement appealed to those who felt excluded from crony capitalism, big government and powerful Trades Unionism. It drew in small businessmen, the taxi driver, the plumber, and shopkeepers in much the way that a Lady Thatcher delineated her constituency.

Given this ( albeit briefly sketched ) history, French responses to immigration and modern austerity will be different from the UK experience.

Britain needed a workforce from its commonwealth and invited it in. Nearly 2million Frenchmen fought to to keep “Algerie Francais”; when they now see significant societal change in its inner cities from those who rejected France -and now come, legally or other wise – their response is very history specific.

Austerity compounds the problem especially amongst those excluded from the EU gravy train or outside a very cushioned life secured by the strong French trades unions.

Paradoxically for those in the UK driving the secular agenda, France’s secular narrative presents a very real intensifier of the problem.

Liberty Equality and Fraternity appear to be very progressive values, but it is something rather less liberal in its application. There remains an anti-clericalism that once expressed itself in Diderot’s phrase that ” Man will not be free until the last King has been strangled with the entrails if the last priest.” Substitute “Emir” and ” Mullah” and you begin to see the measure of the problem.

The ideal of the French State is rooted not in multi-culturalism but omni-culturalism. That culture is essentially that of the Enlightenment in its French form. Not the low key State-power-averse of the USA or the very light touch Minarchism/Established Church of Britain.

It offends France that women wear the burka. It offends France that the Mosque has stronger claims.

On a European scale there are other tensions.

EU is the fulfilment of Bonarpartism with its elite, its “rationalism”, its bureaucratic regulation, even its aspiration for a European Army. The first European Army was Bonapart’s with its Poles Irish Spaniards, Italians augmenting its French core in considerable numbers.

This loss of French identity in the EU was acceptable for one reason only. It was a product of French intellectualism which harnessed the economic power of Germany into its service through guilt rather than reparations.

Whilst it worked, France could accept the compromise. Now it is not working. The French State cannot afford its social security aspirations. Germany is both less guilt ridden. It has moreover, absorbed many of its former countrymen who do not have such fond memories of the USSR as many on the old French Left.

With the perception of failure growing and rampant youth unemployment, a National Front sanitised by the smiling face of Marine Le Pen has broken through reviving a variety of old attitudes, loyalties and aspirations.

This is why David Cameron’s hopes to reform the EU is probably unrealistic.

France cannot, emotionally, bear the triumph of Anglosphere ideas again.

Seeing the UK economy climb above the French is hard. They cannot admit the failure of Jean Monet’s project for to do so would be another humiliation for the French intellectual heritage on which the country prides itself. Whilst some try one more time to make it work, whilst not allowing Britain to remake the EU in its free market image, others will go back to older roots seeking the glories of an autonomous France once more.

France is like an abused child which has not yet fully examined its recent past, much less come to terms with it. We should not be surprised at its bad behaviour through the election result. To equate its very Gallic provenance with UKIP is to betray a significant lack of historical perspective.

This is a very French Tea Party.

The Ecology of Political Institutions


David Cameron’s attempts to build bridges with those parts of Christian community opposed to the re-definition of marriage by praising the faith has opened up another wound for him, as the monstrous regiment of the priggishly offended, duly lined up behind the writers of the oppositional letter to the Daily Telegraph, shrieking like maiden aunts at a Chipperfields Review.

Actually, Brother Ivo takes that back; some of the broadest minded, most tolerant people he has known have been somewhat severe looking ladies whose observations on the follies of the rest of us were acute incisive and instructive.

What is intriguing is that those who are complaining  about  the PM’s. assertion that Britain is a Christian country, would almost certainly be equally assertive that they are “friends of the earth” ( capitalised or uncapitalised). How strange it is that they do not apply their thinking logically and broadly across the disciplines. Only connect.

Let Brother Ivo explain through a seemingly divergent illustration.

Researchers in the United States were recently tasked with improving the flood risk in a part of the country which was suffering rather like our own West Country. After much study they reached the conclusion that things had started to go wrong when the wolf had been removed from the local ecology.

The wolf had predate on deer. In its absence the deer population had expanded. The growing population was no longer wary of grazing the riverbanks, and both ate and trampled young riverbank saplings. The absence of saplings had resulted in decline in the beaver population which no longer dammed the rivers and created flood plains.

In short, taking out the top predator had disastrous consequences downstream. The presence of a wolf population had its downsides not only for deer, but farmer’s livestock, and yet the costs of their absence to the ecology both near and far was devastating.

Those who signed the letter calling for the removal of Christianity from public life, decrying its historic naughtiness, would of course, be equally united in decrying the removal of wolf from its role as top predator in the ecological pyramid. Ask them to explain and protect the complex web of relationships in the natural world and they will have both energy and understanding,  protesting to maintain the smallest variant of of an obscure weed rather than give way to a road by-pass.

So why the blind spot?

Why the seemingly total incapacity to understand that the Constitution of Britain, and indeed all the Constitutions and Institutions of the Anglosphere and the other political environments which evolved from the Protestant Reformation,. are themselves illustrative of the much approved principle ” survival of the fittest”.

Those who seek to preserve the natural world in aspic are frequent the same people perversely cavalier in tearing down the finely tuned political ecosphere which is responsible for the happy free and once tolerant society in which they have lived.

In Britain, our Established Church is an amazingly successful coalition of Catholic, Liberal, Evangelical and Charismatic views. We frequently contend seriously and passionately on deeply held issues. We do not share, still less enforce, much doctrinal orthodoxy and yet a bloody history of contention has taught us much an this has passed by osmosis into the body politic.

The tolerance we learned to accord each other, based upon good Queen Elizabeth I ‘s disinclination to “open a window on men’s souls” influenced the political sphere so that we are greatly blessed that traditionally, our political leaders have been opponents not enemies.

That is currently under threat from the doctrinaire ” progressives” and other heirs to the more European forms of the “Enlightenment” – the wonderful folks that brought you the French Revolution, Marxism and Fascism, whilst dear old fashioned Britain stuck with a Constitutional settlement that bemuses the narrowly logical in the same way that an ant cannot appreciate what goes on beyond its programmed allegiance to its narrowly understood community.

It is should be a historical joy that somehow we have benefitted from this guided evolution. At many decision points, there has been intelligent design -and those intelligent values have been predominantly Christian.

Instead of scrapping the past and building afresh on atheist logic -the North Korean and Albanian model –  we have traditionally and pragmatically built upon our Reformation and Restoration past,

In this distinctly British political ecology, the Lion has learnt to live with the Unicorn, and the lambs have been happy to prosper in that same environment. It is why Ed Milliband’s father was able to find refuge here, though he did tend to ungraciously bite the hand that fed him.

Why did so many faiths find a home here if not because they could prosper under the penumbra of our Christian Establishment?

Once, there was strict legislation against Catholics, Jews, and Non-Conformists but isn’t the point that our Established Church and associated Institutions have demonstrated the capacity to both evolve and nurture that which is not itself?

What the Telegraph signatories do not seem to take into account ( or more worryingly not even to know) is that in an environment it matters who the top predator is.

Mouthing words about “diversity” whilst sawing the trunk of the tree under which you -and it -have flourished is simply crass.

Many of course are the same folk using their free speech to promote Government regulation of the press.

Diversity, of itself does not develop tolerance or peaceful co-existence. Syria is diverse, so is Lebanon. It is secular “liberal” France that has banned the veil, and secular America that hounds Christianity from the public space through litigation.

If you want to see what happens when you remove institutions in diversity rich countries you may go to any number of failed states which struggle to bring together suspicious factions.

Those willing to break the institutional eggs to make a diversity omelette actually have no idea how they will put Humpty together again.

Building a tolerant free country is a long slow process. Our country went through that difficult and costly centuries ago and whilst the architecture of its happy outcome is hardly characterised by its clean logical lines, it still manages to hold us together.

Those who believe that there is a functional alternative might usefully put their talents to the test by building some prototype institutions which demonstrate similar resilience and strength to that of Christian Britain. Good luck bringing the gay, the Islamic, the vegan and the tribal into your Ark.

In contrast, we already have within our Established Church, huge diversity. In our Christian Monarch we have a wise Queen welcomed as Head of State or Commonwealth across the largest network of family and political ties in the world. Our Parliament holds multi party, multi faith views: none of this was designed, but came about by the very natural selection that the National Secular Society is anxious to teach in our schools.

How strange therefore, that they and the Metro-liberals who distain the Established order never pause to reflect that this country remains amongst the best to live in precisely because the Christian faith, analogous to a ” top predator”,  has shaped the environment for the benefit of all, whether they know it or not.

To those who signed the Telegraph letter, Brother Ivo remembers and adapts the old First World War Bruce Bairnfather cartoon of the soldier Old Bill.

” If you know a better political ecology -go to it”!

The wisdom of the “Historic Problem”


When Lady Thatcher made the decision to hand Hong Kong back to China, nobody was more surprised than the recipients of her legalistic approach. She was a person who was culturally programmed to honour a legal agreement and so, when the lease of the territory expired, it was second nature to her to honour the terms of the original treaty.

The Chinese Government was reportedly pleased, but surprised and unprepared for such straightforward dealing, for they had mentally  resigned  themselves for a diplomatic impasse.

For them, a failure to honour the agreement was expected, and they had readied themselves to see the issue kicked into the long grass; they had a politically cultural concept called the “Historic Problem” which was tailor made for this kind of difficulty. They wanted an outcome, but were quite pragmatic and patient if it did not come about at any given time.

It is a most useful concept, and one we in the West would do well to understand and adopt.

This last week has seen a number of issues and occasions where it might come in useful.

The Queen has welcomed the first Irish President on a State visit. That is a historic first, but equally important she welcomed Martin McGuiness, a former IRA commander, to a white tie and tails reception.

She has been welcomed by the Pope and for the first time wore lilac instead of the customary black. The Pope has acknowledged her spiritual status and asked her to pray for him. There is no ready healing of schism, yet the two can walk together in fellowship.

In another small first, Archbishop Justin has taken part in an LBC radio phone -in explaining the problems which the Church has in recognising gay marriage. This and women bishops have huge implications for Anglicans in an African context where people can die in such controversies. He explained that he has to be very circumspect in what he says for important pastoral reasons.

Sajid Javid has succeeded Maria Miller as Culture Secretary, becoming the first Cabinet Minister of Muslim origin and, as an opponent of Gay Marriage, is stepping into the shoes of one who piloted that legislation through.

In each of these cases a recourse to the idea of the “Historic Problem” is a wise course of action we can do well to adopt.

Our cultural mindset is always to resolve problems swiftly, to contend, to vote, to triumph. Yet some problems will never be solved in that way. Even a triumph does not always make the problem go away as the Ulster context readily demonstrates.

Her Majesty provoked some surprise and criticism for inviting Mr McGuiness to break bread wither her, given his terrorist background. Having said that, no doubt Mr McGuiness will have received similar criticism for accepting her invitation. Both have lost close family or friend in the lengthy conflict.

Her Majesty has experience of bringing a long spoon with her to such meetings, having  necessarily entertained a long succession of tyrants and dictators whilst discharging her duties on our behalf. Mr McGuinness cannot have been a more distasteful guest to someone of her generation than Emperor Hirohito, or any number of post-colonial despots who have crossed her threshold.

If she can cope, then so must we.

There will have been significantly less tensions at the meetings between the Queen, the Pope and the Archbishop. That this is the case, only goes to prove that patience and time draw the sting from the recollections of past controversies. One can intellectually re-fan the flames, but the wise do not do so, anymore than the father of the Prodigal Son began his greeting with a litany of his son’s folly and ingratitude.

So it needs to be as Mr Javid takes up his ministerial brief.

Brother Ivo does not know the degree to which Mr Javid maintains his family faith; Brother Ivo is with Queen Elizabeth I on this one – disinclined to make a window into men’s souls. It is perfectly reasonable for Mr Javid to hold to his views whether they are religiously based, culturally based or even out of respect for the family and culture from which he comes.

Brother Ivo hopes that in this country we follow the Chinese example of long term tolerance: if that is culturally dissonant we can always pray in aid Nelson with his telescope who famously “saw no ships”.

There is a time to see a problem, there is a time to lay it aside for another time. The more militant gay activists have yet to learn this wisdom, as they complain at his appointment, but we can be patient ourselves and have recourse to the lovely teaching of Ecclesiastes that “To every thing there is a season”.

Put another way, not every historic problem needs to be resolved today.

Charles I and the State of the Union


Let us begin with a digression; a highly relevant digression

There was once a country which suffered from very deep seated divisions and a huge range of problems.

Within living memory, there had been a lengthy debilitating Civil War which cast a long shadow of  bitterness, distrust and economic depression throughout the defeated territories, lasting many decades.

It also suffered serious ecological catastrophe, devastating thousands of square miles of the most fertile regions with drought and soil erosion which forced farmers off the land and into poverty.  There was no comprehensive road network, so the refugees struggled to escape. They hated those they deemed responsible for compounding their problems as they congregated in refugee camps, where their children died of malnutrition and disease. In these, and indeed in many parts of the country, there was widespread malaria, tuberculosis, diphtheria, yellow fever, and hookworm.

Millions lived in shacks or shanty towns in insanitary conditions which took its toll. There was a huge disparity between the wealth of the  “haves” and the needs of the “have nots”. Vigilantes ruled many communities where the officials were frequently corrupt and elections rigged. Many were simply disenfranchised.

50 years after this miserable state of affairs, the country in question put a man on the moon, for Brother Ivo has been describing none other than the United States of America in the 1930’s.

This is a useful starting point whenever one begins to think about institutions, their values, and their destruction and on many occasions, Brother Ivo has posed the question ” If the USA can do this – why not Africa?”

Africa has no lack of people, talent, resource, and potential, so where is the problem?

It seems to Brother Ivo that the explanation can only be in the value of Institutions.

Countries that have sound Institutions prosper. Those that do not suffer. It is easier to tear down Institutions than to build ones that function with integrity, an many nations have learnt to their cost.

Whatever its failings and practical deficiencies, the USA had one major feature in its favour. It had a full set of institutions within which, the answers to its difficulties lay. It had a Constitution which had been written by men of intelligence and wisdom. There was a balanced distribution between the various holders of power, so that it was best for everyone if they worked in co-operation rather than rivalry.

There was significant and widespread knowledge of that Constitution and a high degree of commitment to it.

People knew and valued their faith whose precepts were shared; where they had drifted from its principles, they had the capacity to be guided back into its ways.

As people’s continued to arrive, they did so to share in the vision, and to take refuge in a a country that had stood as one of the few successful examples of successful escape from the autocracy.

When Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, in a low key manner, to an underwhelmed initial audience, he did not make a single reference to slavery, which most people will tell you that Civil War was about. Abolitionism may have been the Casus Belli, but it was not his principle concern, which was rather to ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Context is everything, and the context here is that, as Lincoln spoke, the USA was only one of two Republics remaining in the world. The French Republic had failed and fallen back into Empire and Monarchy. The ancient Venetian Republic had been overthrown by Napoleon, the enfant terrible of the French Revolution. He was an Emperor   who grew out of revolution as di Mao, Stalin, Idi Amin and many others.  

Lincoln understood that attempts to establish similar fresh initiatives had failed in over 50 countries throughout Europe and Latin America in the year of Revolution 1848. There was a real risk that the fragile democratic balance embodied in the Republic could indeed perish from the face of the earth.

Lincoln knew that the roots of democracy needed to grow deep to be secure and was ready to fight a terrible war rather than see them weakened. He made plain that if the continuance of slavery were the price to preserve the American Constitutional Settlement, that terrible price was one he was prepared to pay.

An appreciation of this is not only useful to one seeking to understanding that particular conflict. It should inform all who trivialise the importance of institutions in the promotion of public welfare.

Africa, indeed, perhaps a majority of members of the United Nations, lack the solid democratic institutional bases which enabled the USA to rise out of the legacy of Civil War and Depression: they still lack the strength of the reconstituted democracies which brought Europe out of the ruins of its 20th century wars.

This context is important to understand, as we hear a US President declaring his intention to remake America, which partly involves ruling by ” Executive Order” rather than the more established method of working in a bi-partisan manner to draw agreement.

On the day we remember the tragically necessary execution of King Charles I,  we may remind ourselves that that conflict also began  because Constitutionalists opposed an attempt by a ruler to break the balance of the established Order and gain supremacy of his will.

One may learn two things from the English Civil War.

First, that a usurpation of rights by an imprudent ruler leads to disaster.

Second, that any attempt to overthrow established institutions too quickly also  leads  to unhappy consequences.

It was from those English Civil War experiences that the British preference for evolution and compromise evolved. The radical puritan experiment failed, and only when a balanced settlement was established did Britain regain its constitutional equilibrium.

Few today appreciate that that Civil War had a higher per capita death rate than The American Civil War or either of our 20th century wars. It was a hard learned lesson though apparently the lesson is fading in our history classes.

Whenever Brother Ivo hears shallow populist calls for root and branch reform, the tyranny of the 51%,  or root and branch destruction of Institutions which have served us well, he has to respond – whether they come from from populist politicians or from shallow ill informed “celebrities” like Russell Brand.

Brother Ivo was prompted into these thoughts as he contemplated the State of the Union broadcast on the anniversary of Charles I’s demise. He did so having recently come across a quote from the excellent Roger Scruton.

” The true default position of mankind- the position to which all communities revert when Institutions crumble – is tyranny “.

This is a good day upon which to mention this to our exuberantly over – radical friends.