The Pope in Georgia

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The Pope just left Georgia, where Mrs SG and I have been for the past 5 weeks. It’s a friendly, interesting place that has, after a bit of a false start, been the most successful of the former Soviet Republics in making the transition to liberal democratic capitalism. It has an Association Agreement with the EU and is very open to Western ideas, trade and investment. Corruption was almost eliminated under President Mikheil Saakashvili, but is creeping back now, we hear.

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But back to the Pope. As he does everywhere, he performed a mass at a venue that would accommodate the expected crowds – in this case a sports stadium. But only a few thousand turned up. It has been reported that the leadership of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which rejects ecumenism and has 83% of the population as followers, advised those followers not to attend.

Apparently ill-feeling engendered by the Great Schism that split Western and Eastern Christianity nearly 1,000 years ago is still strong in Georgia. The Pope was even greeted by demonstrators carrying insulting placards, written in English. According to eurasianet.org they were members of the Union of Orthodox Parents. The same source cites examples of discrimination against Roman Catholicism and other minority religions.

I feel stroppy about this because Georgia seldom gets mentioned in global news reports, and when it does it’s a pity if the news makes the country appear mean-spirited or downright stupid. I am here to tell you that a handful of religiously-inspired hate-mongers are not representative of the Georgians I have met.

Hitler is History

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A story in today’s Sydney Morning Herald made me really, really stroppy. A private school in the Northern Territory of Australia encouraged pupils to dress up as literary characters in celebration of Book Week. One pupil chose to dress up as Adolf Hitler. It so happened that a group of exchange students from a Jewish school in Melbourne were present and found this representation of the man who attempted to annihilate their race in Europe confronting.

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Now everyone is falling over themselves apologising and counselling one another and promising it will never happen again.

So why am I stroppy?

First, the presence or otherwise of Jewish children should have no bearing on the case. Hitler was an enemy of mankind and victimised Slavs, Gypsies, homosexuals, the handicapped, Catholic priests… please add to this list as you see fit.

Second, airbrushing events and individuals out of our cultural landscape, and therefore out of the knowledge that we pass down to our children, is a pretty good way of ensuring that the mistakes of the past are repeated in the future.

And third, dressing up as someone does not have to imply endorsement of their character, their politics or their actions. Prince Harry was castigated a few years ago – unfairly to my mind – for going to a fancy dress party as Hitler. Nobody has suggested that he did so because he wanted a revival of Nazism.

If one goes along with the mock-shock-horror and handwringing that followed an innocent child’s efforts to get into the spirit of Book Week, one should ask oneself which other historical figures should be off-limits. Genghis Khan? Henry VIII?

ghengiskhan henryviii

What about some biblical figures who had a pretty shady reputation when it came to human rights? Moses and Joshua come to mind. How would a descendant of the Canaanites feel if they saw someone dressed as one of those two genocidal criminals? And what about some other unsavoury characters who are still alive and at large?

moses joshua netenyahu

PS   If you think this post is gross, I would point out that it is my 144th.

Understanding Islam

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Sometimes the best that a blogger can do is offer a link to something written by someone else.

Maher Mughrabi is Fairfax Media’s foreign editor. He was born a Muslim and, although he no longer counts himself a member of that faith, has an insider’s understanding of the compexities and contradictions that permeate the Koran itself, the interpretive work of Muslim scholars, the sectarian divides within Islam and the cultural practices that overlay and underpin people’s perception of what it is to be a Muslim.

Koran

I commend this piece that was published by Fairfax Media today. It contains links to some of Maher’s other writings. If you share my curiosity about this diverse, dynamic and problematic religion, and its adherents, please take the time to read some of them.

Maher mentions Pauline Hanson, who says she is studying the Koran to gain a better understanding of Islam. She will be familiar to Australian readers, but others may want to read about her at her own website or at Wikipedia.

Burkinis

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OK, I know what you’re thinking: When is StroppyGit going to pronounce on the row in France over burkinis? Never let it be said that I am insensitive to popular demand, so here goes.

First, I completely agree with those who see the burka as an instrument and a symbol of patriarchal oppression of women. The great majority of women who choose to wear it do so because of the cultural/religious environment into which they had the misfortune to be born. Muslim women who live in Western societies and wear the burka in public must expect to have difficulty making friends and getting a job. They should also realise that they are reinforcing prejudice and hostility against their religion, whose values with respect to gender relations are utterly opposed to modern secular values. In any situation where security is an issue, faces must be revealed and body searches must be submitted to.

Having said all that, it does not follow that a bathing costume that covers everything except the face, hands and feet should be banned. Yes, it may be provocative inasmuch as it is associated with Islam, and most non-Muslims find aspects of Islam objectionable. But is it a religious symbol, in the way that a cross or a crescent or the star of David are religious symbols? I don’t think so. I see it rather as a cultural by-product that will fade away as the culture that spawned it matures.

I like this photo, by the way, which I took from a website – but I forget which one. If it was yours, or if you took the photo, please tell me and I will add an acknowledgement. It’s brilliant because of the almost-exact equivalence of the two women’s figures and movements; the matched horizontal stripes on both costumes; and most of all the happy smile on the face of the burkini-wearing woman. Well done, whoever took it.

Burkini

Being practical, the case is very clear. Banning the burkina is even more provocative than wearing it. Making Muslim women display an amount of flesh that is for them unthinkable will simply amount to a ban on their being part of the beachloving community and enjoying the healthy pastime of swimming in the sea. It will further isolate those women from mainstream secular society and retard their advance towards enlightenment and freedom. And it is a propaganda gift to the Islamists who want to portray Western society as hostile, corrupt and ungodly.

StroppyGit has spoken.

Pope Francis in Armenia

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The centre of Yerevan (Armenia’s capital city) has never been so quiet. Streets are closed off around the temporary stage on the south side of Republic Square, where Pope Francis will this afternoon address dignitaries and whoever can find standing room within earshot of the loudspeakers.

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Armenia was the first country in the world to become officially Christian, beating the Roman Empire by 79 years.  As in Russia, religion has become an important signifier of nationality, and virtually every Armenian is a follower of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The Armenian Church belongs to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, which diverged from Roman Catholicism after the Great Schism of 1054 – the eleventh century equivalent of Brexit.  So a visit by the Pope is a big deal.  It represents a handshake between two branches of the Christian faith – a demonstration of unity of purpose in a fragmented world.

But more than that, in April Pope Francis described the killing of over a million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as ‘genocide’, for which he was reprimanded by the Turkish Government which immediately recalled its envoy to the Vatican.  His first act on landing in Yerevan yesterday was to visit the Genocide Memorial.

Armenia wants international recognition of its proud history, its victimhood and its legitimacy as a nation.  Armenia also wants acceptance of the claims of the Armenian enclave Ngorno Karabakh to independence from Azerbaijan.  Frankly, Armenians cannot understand how anyone could disagree with this interpretation of history and international law.

It is easy to understand why Armenians attach such importance to this visit by someone of Pope Francis’s political and moral standing, and his implicit endorsement of their world view.

Bigotry of Low Expectations

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We rarely go out on Monday nights because we don’t want t miss ‘Q&A’, an hour-long ABC TV programme with a panel of interesting people and a live audience.  Usually there are two Australian politicians from opposites sides, but this week the panellists were all foreign writers who were attending Sydney Writers’ Festival.

The most interesting, I thought, was a woman called Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  As you can see from the screenshot below, she is remarkably beautiful.  And as you might guess from her name, she was born a Muslim.  She writes about the need for reform in Islam.  One of her books is called ‘Heretic’: I haven’t read it, so I can’t personally recommend it.

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I was particularly taken with her accusation that white liberal infidels are reticent about criticising Islamic dogma and custom, even those aspects that stand in stark contradiction to the ideals of liberal democracy – including forced marriage, devaluation of women and persecution of homosexuals and religious minorities. She used the phrase “bigotry of low expectations,” referring to a failure to hold Muslims to account because they cannot be expected to meet the standards we demand of our own kind.

This resonated with me. I am guilty of this kind of bigotry and so are most of my fellow-citizens.  For example, Aborigines are not expected to succeed in the mainstream world of study and work.  They are patronised, subsidised, favoured and cosseted in ways that guarantee a continuation of low achievement from generation to generation.

By the same token we make excuses for unconscionable conduct for which perpetrators claim a religious pretext.  I am thinking, for example, of halal and kosher slaughtering of animals and opting out of the general obligation to vaccinate one’s children.  There was even a case, reported this morning, where a group of accused men refused to stand when the judge entered the courtroom.  Their lawyer claimed that their faith forbade them to stand for anyone but Allah, and cited precedence.

Perhaps it’s our legacy of colonial guilt that makes us unwilling to demand as much from people of other races and faiths as we demand from ourselves, but I agree with Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  This is bigotry and we should shrug it off, and tell people to pull their socks up and behave like decent, responsible citizens irrespective of their ethnicity or religious affiliation.

Hijab and Pants

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I just read an article about an Iranian model called Elham Arab, who was hauled up before the Revolutionary Court for posting pictures of herself in which her hair was visible – and dyed blonde.  This is how she looked in court:

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The article included this interesting snippet: “In Islam, hijab can refer both to the headscarf women wear to cover their hair and the principle of modesty that underlies the practice.”

I wondered whether there were parallels in our own culture, and I think I found one: “to be caught with one’s pants down.” In our culture to be without pants is as immodest and shameful as it is for a woman to be without a headscarf in Iran.

Can you think of any more?

Confess

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There is a ‘metal band’ in Iran called Confess (picture below). The context is music, and I assume that a metal band plays music on a spectrum that has heavy metal at one end.  It’s also referred to as a ‘thrash band’.  I know about Confess because its members are in prison, charged with a list of offences including blasphemy, which is a capital offence in the Islamic Republic of Iran.  You can read the story here.

Confess

You can even hear the band playing at this same site. I think it’s god-awful music, but I wouldn’t condemn the perpetrators to death.

I’m stroppy because we are being drawn into something like an alliance with Iran, since the Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah and the Kurdish Peshmerga seem to be the only people with boots on the ground who are effectively opposing Daesh.

I’m sure the people of Iran, the great majority anyway, are decent sensible folk who take their religion with a pinch of salt and are interested in much the same things that we are. I don’t know if Fawlty Towers has been translated into Farsi, but if it has I’m sure it has a huge following.  (‘We’ means secular westerners like me, by the way.)

But let us never forget that Iran’s leaders are staunch theists who claim to be guardians of the only true interpretation of Islam; and therefore anything they do, no matter how cruel or loony, must be right.  I’m not saying they’re worse than the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia but I don’t think they’re significantly better.

George Pell and Tim Minchin

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You may know about Cardinal George Pell, Australia’s most senior and most prominent Catholic.  He is suspected of having covered up cases of child abuse by priests – indeed, he has been accused of being an abuser himself – and has consequently been summoned to appear before Australia’s long-running Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.  Unfortunately he is in Rome at the moment, helping to clean up the Vatican’s finances, and he is too ill to travel.

Some mean-spirited people think he’s only pretending to be ill, because that’s what most people do when they’re summoned to face serious charges in another country.  These mean-spirited people think Cardinal Pell is afraid to come back to Australia and face his accusers – and perhaps get arrested.  Me, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the case has inspired Tim Minchin to write and record a song.  Tim is a musical and comical genius and the video clip is worth seeing.  He’s quite rude about Cardinal Pell, which may turn out to be unfair, but it’s so clever, funny and musical that I think a little rudeness is forgivable.

In case the name is not familiar to you, Tim Minchin wrote and performs the brilliantly satirical song ‘Storm’ and wrote the musical ‘Matilda’, currently running in London, Sydney and perhaps elsewhere.

Here’s a link to a site where you can see and hear Tim singing ‘Come Home Cardinal Pell’, ‘Storm’ and other songs.

The Apocrypha

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We use the adjective ‘apocryphal’ to mean ‘ of doubtful authenticity’, but how many of us have read or even glimpsed a copy of the Apocrypha? The word comes from Greek of course, and means ‘hidden’. The Apocrypha is a collection of 14 books that have been appended to some versions of the Old Testament but are not generally recognised as authoritative scripture.

I found a copy of the Apocrypha among my grandfather’s papers. He signed the flyleaf and dated it 26/6/02, when he was 20 years old. A label on the inside cover informs the reader thus:

Extract from the Sixth Article of Religion (Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation):

“And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine…”

It goes on to list the 14 books, some of which are very short. One of the short ones is the Story (or History) or Susanna. I found that I knew the story without knowing its provenance. It’s the one about the woman, while bathing in her secluded garden, is raped by two elders who then falsely accuse her of adultery with a young man who supposedly fled the scene. God alerts a man called Daniel to the truth of the matter and instead of executing Susanna the pious crowd turns on the elders.

The story has inspired artists including Jacob Jordaens, who painted this version (Susanna and the Elders) in 1653.

SusannaAndTheElders1653

Regrettably the custom of punishing rape victims has not died out everywhere. Perhaps we should all read the Apocrypha “for example of life and instruction of manners.”