Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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The case for not attacking Syria

The news media are full of plans to attack Syria this evening. On Thursday, Parliament is to be recalled to debate such an attack. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has returned early from holiday to ‘deal’ with the situation. At the same time, the US and France are making similar initial noises about an attack.

I believe these rumours of war are wrong, and urge politicians to think again.

On a personal note, I have been a regular visitor to Syria over the years, for research, study and leisure. I love Syria and its wonderful people. Over the last year, I have had quite a few terribly sad conversations with Syrian friends about the rapidly deteriorating situation.

A line has been crossed: chemical weapons have been used in Syria. Most likely they were deployed by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. Yet there is still just enough doubt, even with a visit from inspectors, to shade any certainty. The use of chemical weapons is a clearly defined war crime. Yet no war crime precipitates a licence to wage war under international law: committing a war crime does not give an automatic right to bomb a country. International law strictly requires a UN Security Council resolution to wage war, and, with Russian and Chinese vetoes, that is not going to happen anytime soon. It seems to be the new ‘white man’s burden’ to police the world, rounding up its tyrants, yet any civilised police forces needs to operate within predefined laws and with public goodwill and consensus.

Apart from the legal problem, there is a serious underestimation of the seriousness of the situation. Yes, I believe the situation is too serious for a military ‘solution’. The reasons for this seriousness are

  1. Bashar al-Assad is a desperate dictator at the head of a complex power network. Forcing him back further into a diplomatic corner will almost certainly make him and his network more desperate, and capable of lashing out with untold consequences.
  2. Syria has entered a civil war. What began as peaceful protest, turned into violent protest when met with government violence, and has since become a full-scale civil war. Gradually, the opposition has shifted from the control of community groups and exiled critics of Assad into the hands of violent, opportunistic gangs, and those importing a religious fundamentalism alien to over a millennium of Syrian multiculturalism. Any military action will change the current balance of the civil war. This is not to say status quo is desirable, but neither necessarily is any shift in balance between two equally undesirable sides.
  3. Not one pot of coffee is brewed in the Middle East without international repercussions. There are Syrian refugees living precariously in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey among other places. Iran and Hezbollah have a strategic interest in supporting Assad in their neighbourhood. As ever, if there is Western military intervention in Syria, however ‘surgical’, Israel will see what regional advantage it can make of the instability, which is likely to be an excuse to bomb sites in Syria, Lebanon and Iran. The West would be culpable for unleashing Israeli attacks.

There is much angst about sitting by and doing nothing. ‘Appeasement’ has a bad rap historically, but it is a logical fallacy to ‘do something’ just because it is felt that something must be done. Military action is always believed to be a last resort, and thus a sign of failure and weakness. Rather than asking if this plan of action will result in a measurable improvement of the situation, it is done for the sake of doing.

Of course, more diplomacy would be welcome, but the West has burnt so many of its diplomatic bridges already that it looks like careless arson. David Cameron should not look to his ‘success’ at bombing Libya, that had unseen consequences in Mali. Libya’s population is under 6 million, Syria’s is over 22 million.

Syria’s large Christian minority are beginning to suffer greatly, in the midst of the general suffering. It cuts me to the heart, but I deplore those Christians outside of Syria who call for military intervention. Standing by is not the weak option. It takes wisdom and courage, when provoked to lash out, to realise that it will only exacerbate the situation, and that the true course of action is to stand firm. To desperate, and weep, yes, but still to stand firm.

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Indonesian, Malay, slang and Arabic names

Greater Indonesia or in the Malay language, In...

Most languages and dialects have slang, and much is playful, but Indonesians seem to take language play to a higher level. The linguistic heritage of the archipelago gives the perfect ingredients for wordplay.

The official language Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) is derived from ‘market Malay‘ (bahasa pasar, the language of the bazaar), which served as lingua franca throughout the region. Although the official, standardised languages of Malaysia and Indonesia are both Malay languages with mutual intelligibility of around 80%, Malaysia‘s places far more weight on court Malay (bahasa istana, particularly the Classical Malay of the Malaccan Sultanate), while Indonesia’s emphasizes the language of the market. This can be illustrated with the faux amis budak, which means ‘child’ in Malaysia, ‘slave’ in Indonesia, and percuma which means ‘free of charge’ in Malaysia, ‘worthless’ in Indonesia. The colonial influence of English and Dutch in Malaysia and Indonesia respectively is illustrated by the word pair polis and polisi: in Malaysia they mean ‘police’ and ‘policy’, but in Indonesia they mean ‘policy’ and ‘police’ (from Dutch polis and politie).

Only around 10% of the around 240 million inhabitants of Indonesia speak the official language as their mother tongue. Most of these first-language speakers are city dwellers who have relegated their regional language in the melting pot of the city. The Malays of Sumatra, Riau and Moluccas (Maluku) speak a regional language that is close enough to the standard language for them to be considered first-language speakers too. The 90% of Indonesia’s population speak over 700 closely related regional languages, the top three are Javanese (basa Jawa), Sundanese (basa Sunda) and Madurese (basa Madhura). The influence of English in the creation of neologisms, especially in technology, is strong in both Malaysia and Indonesia. Only the older generations in Indonesia can remember much Dutch; younger generations are taught English.

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To fast too furious?

Iftar (berbuka puasa)

Iftar (berbuka puasa or fast breaking) at Mesjid Raya al-Mansun (Mansun's Great Mosque) in Medan, Sumatera.

A blessed Ramadan to all!

Depending on which authority you follow, based on the observation of the first crescent of the new moon, the holy Islamic month of Ramadan began either last Wednesday or Thursday. This month of months is set apart by fasting.

Islamic practice is to refrain, during the daylight hours of the month of Ramadan, from consuming any food, drink, tobacco, and having sex. On the positive side, Muslims are encouraged to pray, give charitably and think on God more during the fast.

As the Islamic calendar is based solely on lunar phases without regard to tropical seasons, the months slowly move through the seasons each year. Ramadan falling in August means, in the northern hemisphere, around fifteen hours without food or water each day for around 29/30 days. (Mehdi Hasan has written some basic FAQs on Ramadan for New Statesman.)

As an Anglican I’m fascinated by the Islamic fast. The practice of fasting in Anglicanism is in a shabby state. For most it consists of ‘giving up’ something for the forty days of Lent, usually chocolate. It is not exactly taxing. Apart from the giving up of things, we do encourage Lent courses as a way of getting some positive spiritual input, but we have to admit that it’s all quite slim. The Roman Catholic Church has always been more legalistic when it comes to fasting, setting out what can and can’t be eaten, and how much. However, the history of Catholic pronouncements on fasting shows a steady rolling back of strictures. In contrast, Eastern Christianity has retained a more robust idea of fasting: animal products and alcohol are not consumed during fasts, making one a vegan teetotaler.

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How Arab learning laid the foundations for the European Renaissance

Alcázares Reales, Seville

Alcázares Reales, Seville.

I’ve just spent a restful evening on my sofa watching the last of Bettany Hughes‘s somewhat epic series of documentaries The Ancient World with Bettany Hughes: When the Moors Ruled in Europe. It’s always tempting to criticize this kind of documentary (as I have done in the past; mea maxima culpa!) on what it simplifies or leaves out. However, Bettany Hughes has been helped by having a two-hour time slot on More4 (or Mo-Fo as I’ve heard it called) for each episode.

Never explicitly mentioned, When the Moors Ruled in Europe is clearly set against the 21st-century backdrop of the War on Terror. Aired on the evening before the general election in which two parties — UKIP and the BNP — have anti-Islamic policies in their manifestos, this episode serves as a corrective to the unthinking assumptions of white/European/Christendom superiority. For here we glide endlessly through the mesmerising earthly paradises of Al-Andalus, through Granada’s Alhambra and Córdoba’s Grand Mosque (and not to forget Al-Karaouine University, Fez, Morocco), all set against a backdrop of golden mountains. Here we have liberal, tolerant and highly educated Muslims teaching ignorant Christians about ancient Greek learning before finally falling to the Talibanesque Spanish Inquisition. Although this was a little overwrought in places, there are plenty of moments in the documentary in which the complexities of Christian and Muslim relations and politics are explored, especially setting the Reconquista in the context of stability and cooperation among the northern kingdoms and the reliance of the southern kingdoms on mercenary soldiers.

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The birth of Jesus according to the Qur’an

In Islam, Jesus (‘Isa عيسى) is an honoured prophet. Qur’an 19 — Suratu Maryam سورة مريم, the Chapter of Mary — begins with the story of Zechariah (Zakariyya زكريا) being promised that he and his barren wife will have a son, to be called John (Yahya يحيى), and he is struck dumb for three nights as a sign of the promise. Although Zechariah is not described as a Jewish priest, it said that he comes out of the sanctuary (mihrab محراب) after his prayer.Mary (Maryam مريم) is introduced in verse 16, where we are told nothing of her apart from that she leaves her family and goes to an ‘eastern place’ away from them. God sends an angel to her, popularly understood to be Gabriel (Jibra’il جبرائيل), although the Qur’an describes him simply as ‘Our Spirit’ (Ruhana روحنا). Mary is a virgin, and the Qur’an agrees with the Gospels that she conceived miraculously by the power of God. The child she is to bear is fortold to be a sign for humanity and a mercy from God (ayatun lin-nasi wa-rahmatun minna اية للناس ورحمة منا).When Mary went into labour she went out into a remote place, and clung to the trunk of a palm tree (an-nakhlah النخلة). The Qur’an records her as crying out in pain that she would rather had died and been forgotten at that moment, giving birth all alone. Then God, out of mercy, made a spring to bubble up beside her and urged her to shake the dates from the tree so that she could be refreshed by them. Continue reading


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Islam’s victory over Christianity

Today is Eid Mubahila (Feast of the Cursing Contest), a Shia Islamic festival. It commemorates a meeting between the Prophet Muhammad and a delegation of Christians from Najran in southern Arabia (today’s Yemen).The meeting took place on the ninth year of Hijra. The Prophet had sent embassies to various part of Arabia bidding its inhabitants to become Muslim. The city of Najran had an extremely obstinate Christian population who refused to convert. Muhammad sent a letter to Najran to invite them to convert or pay jizya (tax for nonbelievers), and they sent a delegation headed by Abbot Abdul-Massih Aqib, Bishop Abdul-Harith ibn Al-Qama and Monk Sa’id to Medina. The account says that they changed into silk robes and gold rings before meeting the Prophet, and that he would not meet with them until they changed back into their humble clothes. Continue reading


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The hills are alive with the sound of adhan!

Steeple and minaret

Steeple and minaret in Wangen bei Olten, Solothurn, 7 August 2009 by Michael Buholzer

This coming Sunday, 29 November, the citizens of the Swiss Confederation vote in referendum whether to ban the building of minarets. The referendum was constitutionally triggered by a successful public petition launched by the Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP), a right-wing party with around 23% of the Swiss popular vote and the largest party in the Nationalrat. However, the ‘no’ vote is being urged by the three other main parties and the leaders of Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups across the country.

A major plank of SVP domestic policy is a belief that the country is experiencing Überfremdung, and become ‘overly foreign’. Quite similar claims are trolleyed out by British tabloids on a regular basis, and it is now the general policy of the BNP, becoming that of Ukip and has some resonance in Tory rhetoric. The SVP’s public platform on Überfremdung won them a surge of votes and a new raft of seats in the Nationalrat in the general election two years ago.

Switzerland’s Muslim population is surprising large, around 4% of the population. Back in 1980, their number was less than 1%. Such rapid demographic change is clearly a shock to a small, conservative country. Some have taken Swiss citizenship and other naturalised. Turkish, Albanian and Bosniak migrants are the largest Muslim ethnic groups, the latter two groups a result of Balkan civil wars during the 90s. Concentrations of the Muslim population are found in the large cities of Zürich, Geneva and Basel, but, unlike the UK, the Muslim population of Switzerland is fairly evenly distributed throughout the country. Continue reading