Some of our leaders misuse myth and media to divide and embitter society. We must see beyond this and unite over our common values to face the growing threats to our planet.
My theme is Northern Ireland and the Middle East. Are there lessons to be learned from comparing the two?
I am, as you can imagine, still preoccupied and haunted by the war in Iraq and its consequences. I am in the process of finishing a book to try to explain hw a Labour Government could possibly come to be one of a tiny number of states supporting an extreme, right wing US administration in a war that has caused terrible suffering and loss of life, further destabilised the Middle East and strengthened support for the Al Qaeda network.
The theme of this year’s John Hewitt summer school is “Crazily Tangled: media, myth, history and confusion” and is as you know drawn from the poem ‘An Irishman in Coventry’. And as I come from Irish people who moved to Birmingham, on my mother’s side from Co Clare to escape the famine and, on my father’s from South Armagh to find work, I was born perhaps 20 miles from Coventry, I feel close to all of this. I am of Irish origin, born in Birmingham and representing a constituency whose population originates from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and many other countries. We represent almost every ethnicity and religion and we are different, yet all the same, because it was the chance of work and a better future that brought us all to Birmingham, and people like us to Coventry because even during the 1930s, due to the growth of the car industry, there were jobs to be had in Birmingham and Coventry. And when I read the poem saying:
Then, sudden, by occasion’s chance concerted, in enclave of my nation, but apart,
the jigging dances and the lilting fiddle
stirred the old rage and pity in my heart.
I imagine that John Hewitt thought he was away from Ireland and then met people like me who went to Irish dancing lessons and learned the songs and some of the language, because all people have to pass on their cultural roots to their children through their religion and songs and poems in order to pass on themselves.
And thus in Birmingham we have what you might call a crazy tangle – we have mosques, synagogues, black and white churches, Hindu temples, Sikh Gurdwaras and Buddhist pagodas. It is an exciting and moving diversity of people and we get along well and learn from each other and our children know more of the religions and cultures of the world than any generation of children anywhere have probably ever known.
But in my city there is a great anger at the war in Iraq. We have a substantial Moslem population originating mostly from Pakistan and Bangladesh, but also from Somalia and elsewhere. We also have a couple of the sons of our city in Guantanamo Bay. You may have head Mr Beg talk movingly of his concern for his son. And the anger of the people of Birmingham has led to a change in the leadership of the city, as the people of the inner city and the middle class areas used their votes to show their anger at the Labour Party.
Now the point I am trying to get to here is why did oppression and injustice lead to:
A people endlessly betrayed by our own weakness, by the wrong we suffered…
By force, by famine and by glittering fables which gave us martyrs when we
by faith which had no charity to offer,
by poisoned memory, and by ready wit,
with poverty corroded into malice,
to hit and run and how when it is hit.
Why did difference of religion help to divide and create such bitterness and suffering in Irish history and why is it doing the same only even worse now in the Middle East, but differences of religion and culture in Birmingham and Coventry are enriching the people and creating a culture of tolerance and mutual respect?
I think the simple answer is that if people can fulfil their lives and obtain justice without violence then religious difference does not create bitterness and division, it generates excitement and learning from difference, but when it is the badge of the oppressed and the oppressor, then religion reinforces bitterness and division.
And I am afraid there are parallels between the history of Ireland and the Middle East. Ireland was colonised by Britain and rebelled repeatedly to try to remove oppressive British rule which also oppressed the religion of its people. And then it was partitioned and this led to continuing bitterness, injustice, division and violence which is only now, at last, coming to an end.
Now Palestine was of course part of the Ottoman Empire, which it should be noted, showed much greater tolerance of Christian and Jewish minorities than did the west to Islam and to its Jewish minorities. But at the end of the first World War, as the old empire crumbled, Palestine came under British rule and Britain made contradictory promises to the local population and to Jewish aspirations. Then after the Second World War to assuage European guilt for the horrors of the holocaust, Palestine was partitioned in 1948 through a UN resolution, when the UN represented only about 50 countries and most countries of the developing world were not yet independent and therefore were not yet members of the UN. And following the partition, there has been bloodshed and bitterness and oppression and suffering and despite a promise of two states living peacefully side by side in the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 and more recently in the internationally agreed Road Map to a Palestinian state by 2005, the situation gets ever worse.
And in this dispute we have the ancient claims of the Jewish people to lands that Moses led them to out of slavery in Egypt. And we have the ancient, evil anti- Semitism which was so entrenched in Europe and meant for example when the Popes called for crusades to free the Holy Land from the ‘infidel’, massive bloodshed followed particularly in the conquest of Jerusalem. These were even called ‘Holy Wars’ and they were fought against Moslems who worshipped the same God as Christians, recognised the virgin birth of Mary, honoured Jesus as a great prophet, and recognised the old testament as part of their heritage. In fact, Moslems saw and still see people of the Book – Christians, Jews and Moslems – all as descendents of the teachings of the same prophets. And these same crusaders, who set off on their holy quest, murdered and pillaged and slaughtered Jews as they travelled across Europe to try to conquer the lands that are held holy by all three of these great religions. And these lands are still today drenched in blood. So, today, we are moving to long lasting peace in Ireland, but the conflict in the Middle East is worse than ever and there is, of we continue as we are today, little prospect of peace for decades to come.
And all of this has been made massively worse by the rush to war in Iraq. And here we see a clear intersection of media, history and myth, ancient and modern. The people of America supported war in Iraq because 80% of them were led to believe that the attack on the twin towers on September 11 2001 was organised from Iraq. And this myth was spread by politicians with the help of massively powerful and unbalanced media. But in Britain, the majority of the people did not support the war and did not believe this myth, perhaps because perhaps significantly we had the BBC which ensured that the people of Britain were not so misled by the media, as were the people of the US.
Of course, the people of the UK were fed myths by their Prime Minister for reasons that are hard to fathom. My own conclusion was that the reasons were a mixture of hubris and a belief that the Prime Minister knew better than his Cabinet, Party and country what was the right thing to do and thus concluded that it was honourable to engage in deception to get his country to war by a pre-arranged date. His recent biographer, Anthony Seldon, suggests that Blair’s relationship with God convinced him that he was right, and so we come back to religion again.
So what is the conclusion of all this? We certainly have crazy tangles, ancient and modern myths and many martyrs. We have faith that seems to have no charity to offer and poisoned memory and poverty corroded into malice. In Gaza, for example, the levels of poverty are according to Unicef now worse than poverty in Zimbabwe and the Congo. And a survey of children carried out last year by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme showed that only 2% displayed no symptoms of post- traumatic stress disorder; a quarter aspire to martyrdom.
But can we learn anything from the peace process in Northern Ireland and the enjoyable diversity of cities like Birmingham and Coventry? And I think the answer is yes. The way to end violence and bitterness is to commit to justice and truth and loving one’s neighbour as oneself which is the teaching of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
It would be easy to move to peace in the Middle East. As I say to my Moslem constituents in Birmingham, their views are no different from the rest of the people of the UK or of Europe. All find the suffering of the Palestinian people unbearable. Almost all favour a two state solution, as do a majority of Palestinian and Israeli people. And all that is holding this up is bad leadership in Israel and the US and the unwillingness of the Prime Minister of the UK to use the leverage available to him over Iraq, to demand action to implement the Road Map to a Palestine state before working with other leaders in the Middle East to deal with the problem of Saddam Hussein. But it would be a relatively easy matter to establish two states, replace the coalition forces in Iraq with forces invited to Iraq by an Iraqi government and to insistthat all WMD be removed from the Middle East. There would then be no need for the US to prop up authoritarian regimes to hold down the anger of their people, and there could be a period of development and progress in the Middle East.
I am not of course suggesting that such a situation would satisfy the millenarian, nihilistic, myth making and media manipulation of Osama bin Laden, but it would almost certainly drain the swamps of anger and humiliation that are leading to a growth in recruitment to Al Qaeda. And I think people with some understanding of Irish history and history of Northern Ireland have a particular understanding and therefore a duty to explain and demand a shift from the crazily misconceived war on terror.
And then we could get on with the massive task that threatens the future of our world. Vast and terrible levels of poverty and environmental degradation in a world awash with the capital, knowledge and technology that means we are the first generation ever that has the capacity to eliminate extreme poverty from the human condition. But we need to hurry because by 2050 there will be 9 billion people and the effects of global warming will be severe.
Our problem at this time is a small number of leaders misusing myth and media to divide and embitter. The risks are very great, but the lessons of Northern Ireland and of Birmingham and Coventry point the way forward, if only we can join together and force the leaders to listen and reflect and learn from the deep message contained in John Hewitt’s poem, ‘An Irishman in Coventry’.