29 May, 2013

When Cultures Meet: or "Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?" (Abraham Lincoln)

In the great Mosque/ Cathedral in
Cordoba - it brought memories of Istanbul
We’ve been away enjoying a wonderful tour of inland Spain visiting the great historical Andalucían cities of Seville, Granada, Cordoba and Ronda. The sun shone, the company was good, the hotels superb but as well as being very enjoyable it was also thought provoking in a variety of ways.
This could be a mughal palace
in far away India

With the use of Wi-Fi and my smart phone I was able to keep up with the international news each evening – a quick touch on my Guardian App and I could read the headlines from around the world. And as I logged on and skimmed through the world’s events each evening I read of the dreadful killing of an off duty soldier in London – an event which we are told has terrorist links. What I found equally or maybe even more worrying was the apparent and predictable backlash that resulted – mosques being firebombed, tabloid and right wing newspapers whipping up a frenzy and large increase in race related crime and extremist parties like the BNP or English Defence League feeling this was too good an opportunity to miss to perhaps sign up a few more supporters. From what I could gather prime minister David Cameron very quickly identified this as a terrorist event and in doing so, in my view, increased the likelihood of racial extremism.  We have now returned to the UK to read of the Home Secretary drawing up new plans to counter terrorism and in the process, I would guess, not only further limits general freedoms but also will further stoke up the racist and religious tensions. This is not to minimise a truly dreadful event by people who clearly must be punished in the most severe manner but when tensions run high, religion is involved, extremists are on the scene and powerful voices – be they politicians, newspaper editors or street corner orators – are whipping up the throng, then things can get badly out of hand. The briefest look through history – from an Easter in Jerusalem over 2000 years ago when the mob ensured a man was put on a cross, to pre War Germany when the beginning of the holocaust was founded, to many of today’s problems that we see across the world in places like Syria – will illustrate that violence and inhumanity is often rooted in hatred and stoked up extremism.

It was both saddening and expected to find that when I returned home on Sunday the undercurrent of hatred and extremism had crept into my own home. I switched on my computer and found that eight new “jokes” had appeared in my e-mail inbox. Like many, I suppose, I regularly receive jokes, light hearted tales, interesting items that are circulating the internet from friends and acquaintances. Out of the eight such items in my in-box six were unsavoury, racist, anti-Muslim offerings which I immediately deleted. It seems that just under the surface of us all there is a bit of hatred and mistrust waiting to get out – even from the “nice” people who are my friends! Events like the killing in London and the backlash that follows means that we all become party to it in some form or another and proves to me that all of us have only the thinnest veneer of tolerance.
A Moorish philosopher in
Seville - touch his shoe and
you will gain his wisdom we
were told. I touched his shoe -
still waiting for the wisdom!

But back to Spain! As we toured these wonderful places - the lovely old town of Ronda with its great bridge, ancient bull ring and quiet charm,  the bustling city of Seville with its great Cathedral, the beautiful Maria Luisa Park, and the stunning Alcazar,  the truly wonderful mosque/cathedral and alcazar of Cordoba and, finally, the “jewel in the crown”, so to speak, the great Alhambra at Granada - I was struck by a number of things.
Taj Mahal or Spain?

Every one of these places (and others I have not mentioned) are amongst some of  the world’s great places for some reason or other – designated World Heritage sites, the birth place of bull fighting, the oldest Royal Palace still in use, the starting point of Columbus’ trip to discover the New World – and so it goes on. They can all, rightly, claim to be at the heart and cradle of our western civilisation. Every one of them in some small way, touches our lives today. As we walked though the beautiful gardens of the Alcazar in Cordoba we came across a statue of Columbus standing in front of Queen Isabella & King Ferdinand in the late 15th century. It was Isabella who funded Columbus’s mad cap venture to sail west in order to get to the east. He set off with his four little ships and “discovered” America. Within a few years Seville and its surrounding area was one of the great and richest cities of the world as Spanish galleons made their way up the river to this inland port  -  each ship laden with the riches of the New World. I looked up at the statue and wondered if Isabella and Ferdinand ever dreamed that when they provided Columbus with his funds for his venture that this would be the result – untold wealth for their country but further into the future that they would be bringing to the world a super power whose actions and power would affect all of us everyday – Starbucks, Coke, Hollywood, Wall Street...........and so it goes on. Would it all have ended differently if, for example, that first discoverer had set out from Shanghai or St Petersburg and the New World had been populated not by Europeans but by Chinese, Indians or Russians?  Would the whole “balance” of our modern world be the same? Would we still be fighting a "war on terror" against eastern countries - or would they see us as the terrorists? 
Mathematical and artistic
perfection of pattern - we saw
the same patterns in India.

Or another recurring theme, as we travelled through this wonderful area, was the impact of invading armies and military action – and especially one man – Napoleon. Wherever we went it seemed Napoleon had left his mark – and usually in a negative way! In the early years of the nineteenth century following the French Revolution, as Napoleon fought to extend his Empire during the Peninsula War, we came across example after example of Napoleon’s impact. So often we read or heard that works of art had “gone missing” from the great cathedrals and palaces – presumably all to fill the houses and chateaux of France and the Louvre! But of course, all wars bring this – violence, destruction, pillage and in this case perhaps the greatest act of destruction occurred at Granada when Napoleon used the Alhambra in Granada as a garrison for his troops. As the war turned against him and he began to flee the country he planned to blow up the vast structure. His plans were foiled to some extent by a wounded soldier left behind in the retreat – according to legend he cut the fuses to many of the explosives and so preserved one of the wonders of our world.
The Alhambra - or a
desert oasis?

But it was not only Napoleon who left his mark – the Romans, the Moors, Catholic princes and monarchs with fine sounding names – Queen Isabella, King Ferdinand, Pedro the Cruel and many, many others all left their imprint on the landscape, the culture, the economy and the built environment.

Islamic patterns - look closely
and the writing says "Allah is good"
The history of this part of the world is a worthy reminder of the impermanence of empires – Romans, Moors, Christians, invading French, great Spanish kings and queens, the English all have come and gone in some way or another – all, at their time, were masters of the universe and all eventually crumbled and passed into history. All wrote their tales in the buildings they erected and the cultures that they pursued. And, of course, they all had their own version of history! For example Pedro the Cruel who was largely responsible for the building of the beautiful Seville Alcazar on the ruins of the old Moorish structure was known by many as Pedro the Just – it just depended on your point of view, your historical perspective - to many he was a cruel tyrant to others a just king! History is a funny old thing! As we walked round the Admirals’ Hall the Alcazar -  a series of rooms filled with paintings and art celebrating Spain’s glorious naval past - I reflected that there was not one picture or reference depicting the defeat by Drake of the Spanish Armada in 1588. I’m sure that in any English naval art gallery we would find some celebration or acknowledgement of the defeat of the Armada.  But that is the way that the history of nations works. They celebrate success and glory and quietly forget or delete defeat or less savoury aspects of their past. In modern times we criticise communist regimes for doing this re-writing of history - but in reality we all do it! And we are no different  than our Spanish cousins – our art and culture generally celebrates the good and the things of which we are proud; I haven’t seen many great works of British art celebrating the defeat of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings – we left that to the victors the skilled needlewomen of Bayeux! History, it seems only celebrates the winners and certainly it is the winners who write the history! To be fair, however, we did see a picture of and reference to the Duke of Medina Sidonia when we walked around Ronda – the Duke, much maligned by the end of his life was the ill fated commander of the Armada and its defeat was very much blamed on his alleged incompetence. He was definitely not a winner! But even his name tells its own story – and it is the story of Andalucía. ‘Medina’ is a Moorish word for ‘city’ and Sidonia the name of the city - ‘Sidou’. Medina Sidonia is a city in the Ronda region so the Duke was one of its sons and he was one of the most powerful men in Spain. He was a man whose actions in 1588 had an effect on our own country’s fortunes and history and he came from a Moorish background. How complex is the web of human life and culture!

And this was the joy of our little tour of Andalucía – wherever we went we witnessed a clashing of cultures, and histories. We heard names and saw places that directly impacted on our own world and history. Names and events that crop up in our own heritage. People and places that ultimately give meaning to our own life and history.
In the Alhambra

Indeed, the overwhelming and recurring theme of our trip was just this – the intermixing of two great cultures -  Christian and Islam. Moorish and European. Wherever we went we were reminded of the strong links between the two. Walking round the Alhambra in Granada or the Mosque/Cathedral in Cordoba or the Alacazar in the same city  one was faced with the Moorish/Muslim heritage. Wherever we went were reminded of our visit some years ago to Istanbul and as we stood in the Alhambra or in the Alcazar both Pat and I reflected that we felt the same atmosphere and saw the same forms when we stood in the misty dreamlike dawn of Agra gazing at the Taj Mahal in 2008. The shapes and patterns, the architecture, the serenity of the places, the sheer beauty reminded us of ancient mughal palaces visited in India. As I stood in these places I reflected that much of the great Muslim/Moorish art and architecture was founded upon their mathematical and artistic  skills at a time when we in Europe were still in what we call the “dark ages”. As we drove past Andalucían villages our guide pointed out the Moorish minarets that had been cleverly converted into Christian church bell towers. As we watched and listened to the music of Flamenco dancing you could almost touch the sound of the East. Great cultures mixing and morphing into something else.
The Alhambra from afar - and in the
distance the distance the snow
capped Sierra Nevada mountains

And at the end of our little trip I reflected on three things.

Firstly, in all that we had seen, whether it be Moorish or European, Muslim or Christian I was struck by the fact that they had created something to reflect their culture and beliefs. Religious beliefs, items of beauty, reflections of their community and its values. And I wonder what will we leave that speaks of us to the tourist or historian of five hundred years from now – and what will this future tourist say and think about what we have left? and secondly, these palaces, mosques, churches, castles and the rest – were constructed to a large degree to announce to the world the power, wealth and faith of their creators be they Moorish Sultans or Catholic Princes. Just as in Florence with the Medici or the Doges of Venice they wished to show the world and their peers not just that they were wealthy but that they were cultured, devout and powerful. What will we produce I wonder? I’m not, I think, looking at history through rose coloured glasses – these great man and women, families like the Medici or the Sultans who built the Islamic palaces were, in all probability, violent and rapacious individuals whose private and public persona would probably not meet our standards today – but in their quest for power and glory they left us a treasure  trove of the best of their civilisation. What will our great and good leave for posterity to show the best of our civilisation - our high culture, our traditions, our beliefs and our values?

Sadly, my answer to these two questions, despite racking my brains, is that what we will leave are too often things that purely utilitarian or reflections of a civilisation bent not on creating beautiful things but on a society bent on creating only wealth. Just as in Spain or Italy or other great towns and cities if you walk around any English city you will find ample evidence and examples of our past and where we have come from.  Walk around London and our eighteenth and nineteenth century Empire is on every street corner – places of government, statues of the great and good, offices of state, great commercial enterprises that made London the one time capital of the world.  Walk around any northern industrial town and you will still see the great cotton and woollen mills (now often turned into up-market apartments or supermarkets!), you will see the rows of terraced worker’s houses tightly packed against the mill wall and in the centre you will see the obvious civic pride and local wealth reflected in the great Town Halls. Walk around our historical towns and cities – Stratford, Canterbury, York, Durham and you will see the history and culture of our nation. But this is our past  - what will tourists in half a millennia see of our modern culture and tradition? What will 2013 leave as a mark of its culture, heritage, belief and society’s values?  Will it be the Shard or Canary Wharf, I wonder, that tourists will flock to as they do today when they visit St Paul's or Westminster Abbey or Blenheim Palace? Will our millionaires (of whom there are very many today compared with a few hundred years ago) or our local leaders leave to future generations places like the Alcazar or St Mark’s in Venice or the Taj Mahal built by Shah Jahan in memory of his beautiful wife? Sadly, I think not – instead tax havens and wealth creation and retail outlets are the Gods that our society increasingly worships – not pride or faith or tradition or heritage or that which is good or the beautiful. Maybe future tourists will gaze in wonder at some fossilised Marks and Spencer or B & Q store!  Maybe instead of a wander around the beautiful gardens of the Alhambra future historians and tourists to England will wander around open mouthed in the ancient Tesco car park!

And we think we are clever!
And the third reflection? I return to the start of this blog and the dreadful murder of a young off duty soldier on the streets of London. Whilst this was terrible act was being carried out I was walking around buildings that represented the very heart of Islamic history. As I did this, the government were drawing up plans to alienate a significant portion of the population and the right wing extremists were throwing petrol bombs at Muslim mosques and my own friends were sending me racially motivated “jokes”.  I was walking round wide eyed and open mouthed at the serenity and beauty of Islamic buildings - physical manifestations of the Muslim faith - whilst back home extremism and racial harmony was rife. Despite this, as I walked through the Moorish heritage of the Alhambra or the Alcazar I thought (as I remember doing in the Taj Mahal or as I walked in the great Mosque in Istanbul or through the ancient mughal palaces of India) that we in the west have so much to learn. We have wonderful modern technology and feel we are so very clever - we oft call many of these places the second or even third world - because today we judge all by wealth and by our clever western standards. Anything that doesn't meet these standards is judged inferior.  But these peoples – the Chinese, the Indians, the Egyptian, the Moors, the Greeks, the Romans and the rest were conducting scientific experiments, making mathematical calculations, producing wonderful art and architecture, writing great literature, establishing great religions to sustain their soul and defining philosophical arguments and political structures almost before we had learned to live in caves! Deep within me I have this feeling that they know things that we do not and can never know.

In today’s Guardian I read three things which seemed relevant. One was a letter from a correspondent who wrote: “I think we should listen to what everyone has to say, including Muslim extremists ......... Extremism is just that: an extreme version of what a group of people think. One of the results of not listening to people's fears around immigration is right wing extremism........ one of the results of not listening to people's disgust at invasions of Muslim countries is Muslim extremism. How can we end either kind of extremism if we won't acknowledge its causes?  So very true – if we don’t speak to each other and listen then what hope is there?

The second was an article written by one of the founders of UKIP. He said:“...... Ukip, the party I founded 20 years ago and left in 1997 as it became a magnet for people whose vision of the future is the 1950s – a supposed golden age before the EEC, black people, Muslims and other immigrants, gays, lesbians and other products of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, desecrated this island Eden.....”  As I read this I thought of the “jokes” I had received – a number from friends who I know who UKIP supporters. I don’t condemn UKIP – it is a perfectly legitimate organisation and they are perfectly entitled to their views, but its rise increasingly, I believe,  reflects a growth of intolerance within society. Indeed, I could forcefully argue that David Cameron’s quick condemnation of the Woolwich atrocity as an act of terrorism, was clearly calculated to appeal to large portions of the electorate - it was calculated rabble rousing. Cameron clearly didn’t want to be caught as was Gordon Brown a few years ago when Brown inadvertently called a woman a “bigot” when she brought up immigration and racist issues as he was on the election trail. The sad thing was that it probably lost Brown the election but in fact he was quite correct – she was a bigot. It is easy for people to have perfectly legitimate concerns but at the same time to knowingly or unknowingly be stirring the “intolerance pot”.  I read last week that an organisation intended for charity – “Help the Heroes” – had expressed their displeasure when the English Defence League offered donations to the organisation which caters for  supporting wounded and injured soldiers. The “English Defence League” is a right wing extremist body and “Help For Heroes” was quite right to take the stance they did. Unfortunately, from where I sit the very name “Help For Heroes” is jingoistic and now almost synonymous with the “war on terror” in Muslim countries because it supports soldiers largely injured whilst in action in Muslim areas. That is precisely why the EDL wished to be associated with them – they were quietly linking their extremism with others, who although not themselves necessarily extremist, do represent an aspect of nationalism and jingoism that can easily be translated into intolerance.

And finally, an article by Guardian columnist Seumas Milne: “Eight years on, nothing has been learned. In the week since a British soldier was horrifically stabbed to death by London jihadists on the streets of Woolwich, it's July 2005 all over again. David Cameron immediately rushed to set up a task force and vowed to ban "hate clerics". Now the home secretary wants to outlaw "nonviolent extremist" organisations, censor broadcasters and websites and revive plans to put the whole country's phone and web records under surveillance”.
"Kneejerk" barely does it justice.........As the police and a BBC reporter described the alleged killers as of  Muslim appearance (in other words, non-white), Islamophobic attacks spiked across the country. In the first five days 10 mosques were attacked, culminating in a triple petrol bombing in Grimsby.
In Seville's Maria Luisa Park

As politicians and the media congratulated themselves that Britain was "calmly carrying on as usual", it won't have felt like that to the Muslim woman who had her veil ripped off and was knocked unconscious in Bolton. Nor, presumably, to the family of 75-year-old Mohammed Saleem, stabbed to death in Birmingham in what had all the hallmarks of an Islamophobic attack – or, for that matter, the nearly two-thirds of the population who think there will be a "clash of civilisations" between white Britons and Muslims, up 9% since the Woolwich atrocity......”

Difference easily breeds distrust and distrust is the first stage of fear and then hatred and this in its turn promotes violence. It is what the bully, be he on the school playground or standing giving a political speech depends upon – the insecurity of people and the opportunity to home in on those that are different and appear to be “not one of us”. Throughout the centuries we have seen people use this as a tool to whip up emotions – think only of Hitler in Germany against the Jews or McCarthy in America against alleged communists or Robespierre as he ignited the “terror” in Paris during the French Revolution.
Christopher Columbus stands
before Ferdinand and
Isabella - before setting out for
the New World
If we are to break this circle then we have to understand and respect each other. Anything that induces distrust or fear is almost certain to end in violence.  I have absolutely no doubts that the present policy of waging “a war on terror” – a misplaced euphemism for a war on anyone who we happen to distrust or fear or is different from us - is the completely wrong approach. Its only consequence is a violent response. We have seen it for too long in too many places. But it seems to me that there is an even higher imperative than this – namely that we all have so much to learn from each other. We, in the west, might think ourselves very clever with our technology and life style but just maybe we have much to  learn and perhaps admire from other cultures and it behoves us as part of humanity and the sharers of this small planet to be able to do just that. So, when, on my return from Andalucía, I looked at the rather sad and depressing and racially motivated jokes on my computer I quickly deleted them and thought rather of all I had seen and enjoyed of Moorish and Islamic based art and architecture in those few past days.  
A tiny part of the great dining hall in the
Golden Temple of Amritsar. All are welcome
to sit shoulder to shoulder and eat and to
be treated with honour and respect.
Beats the "war on terror" every time!

As I deleted the offending mails and saw on the TV and internet the racist backlash following the murder of the soldier in London and I thought of another holiday - in 2008 - when we visited India and have wonderful memories of the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the spiritual home of the Sikhs. As in the mosques and cathedrals we visited in Spain the reverence was tangible and the art and architecture stunning. But I remember, too, the humility that I felt as we stood in the great “dining hall” of the Temple where many thousands each day come and are fed a simple but nutritious meal. “It is what we believe we must do” said our Sikh companion. At first I assumed this was just for “believers” but was quickly put to rights – “No, anyone may eat” we were told “just sit down shoulder to shoulder with the next person and you will be fed. You may be sitting next to a beggar or a prince – we are all equal and we see no difference” Now that’s tolerance and understanding. And I thought, too, of a story that I often used to tell when leading a school assembly - about friends and enemies. It is a story about Abraham Lincoln and has many versions. As the end of the Civil War approached Lincoln had occasion to refer to the Confederate soldiers and leaders  benevolently - as fellow Americans who had simply "erred" -  rather than as enemies to be beaten, humiliated and exterminated. He even suggested that he would be dining with a number of the Confederate leaders. An elderly lady, a fiery patriot, rebuked him for speaking kindly of his enemies when he ought to be thinking of destroying them. "Why, madam," said Lincoln, "do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?" So true! Lincoln's comment seems to me to be a clear restatement of the Christian ideal of "who is my neighbour" expressed in the parable of the Good Samaritan or Christ's sermon on the mount: I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven”. Not to heed this imperative is a denial of Christian teaching - and we are supposed to be in the west, nominally at least, Christian societies.  I have absolutely, no doubt that our misguided leaders and  the those in wider society (be they political organisations, charity groups, extremist sects, ordinary individuals or indeed those who would circulate racist "jokes")  who would be suspicious of or mock other nations and humiliate those of a different cultures encourage hatred, bloodshed and acts of the sort that occurred on London last week. They could learn much from Abraham Lincoln and a visit to Amritsar - or, indeed, a visit to these wonderful places in Andalucia. All of them speak of what it is to be human and how we must, somehow, work out how we can share this small planet together - and that must mean tolerance, understanding and respect - not wars on terror.