Archive for June, 2013

Zarjaz! New Children’s Laureate Backs the Four-Colour Funnies!

June 5, 2013

Britain’s new children’s laureate, the Black writer Malorie Blackman, was on breakfast TV this morning talking about her views, work and desire to encourage more children to read. She came across as an extremely intelligent and dynamic ambassador for literature for children. She said she wanted every child in the UK to get a library card. This is undoubtedly, obviously a good thing – libraries are an essential for any civilised society, and encouraging them to use them is a major step in encouraging children not only to read, but to enjoy litaracy and learning. Another of her ideas is to set up a scheme whereby children can be encouraged to produce a piece of art, poetry, drama or music inspired by something they’ve read, and shown on the web. What cheered me the most, however, was that she defended comics as a means for getting children, particularly boys to read. The two BBC hosts, Bill Turnbull and Susannah Reed, asked her about the way boys stop reading. Blackman stated it was because they had so many other things competing for their attention, and that they were also reading for exams. She was keen to encourage boys to keep on reading, and remarked that comics and graphic novels were some of the things boys did continue to read. She and Susannah Reed particularly noted that the graphic novels V for Vendetta and Watchmen contained the type of gritty issues Blackman’s works also discussed.

I fully support her comments about the power of comics to get people reading. Much of the literature I read when I was a child consisted of the four-colour funnies and their British equivalents – a lot of Marvel comics, but also British mags like Action, Battle, their predecessor, Valiant, and the humour comics Whizzer and Chips, Cheeky, the Dandy and the Beano, and, of course, the mighty 2000 AD. They gave me access to a world of fun, adventure and wonder. They also had an educational value. Marvel’s Thor obviously drew on Norse mythology, which encouraged me to read more about that. The heroes of many of Marvel’s strips were scientists: Peter Parker of Spiderman, Bruce Banner of the Incredible Hulk, and Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four. Their adventures were science fictional. They travelled to alternative dimensions, or different worlds in far-flung galaxies, and this did help encourage my own early interest in science, astronomy and space. I first heard of the Planck Constant in the pages of Hulk Comic. This was in a series of adventures in which the mighty green one shrunk until he was smaller than the above smallest unit of measurement, and so fell through the fabric of the universe onto a world in a subatomic universe. Many comics contained adaptations of classic SF and Fantasy stories, such as Conan. These encouraged their readers to seek out and read the original books. They also encourage a form of artistic appreciation, as people recognised and looked for the work of their favourite artists. Barry Windsor-Smith, who drew many of the Conan strips, is one of the very best known, as is Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko in Marvel. Over this side of the Pond the great comic book artists include Brian Bolland, Kevin O’Neill, Steve Moore, Mike McMahon, Dave Gibbons and Glen Fabry, as well as the Spanish artist Carlos Ezquerra, to name only a few. The comics world just about encircles the planet, and their readers also have a taste for exploring the pictorial, fictional worlds of other nations and cultures. The great French comic artist and author, Moebius, aka Jean Giraud, was also read and received high acclaim amongst anglo-phone comics fans, and there is an English language version of the French SF comic anthology, Metal Hurlant, which he helped found. This interest in other cultures’ comics helped launch Japanese Manga comics in America and Europe.

Now I have to say that I never got on with V for Vendetta nor Watchmen. I didn’t really like the gritty realism of which they were apart, and stopped reading comics in the ’90s as they seemed a bit too bleak and grim. I far prefered lighter adventure material. The moral assumptions behind Watchmen, or at least the Watchmen film, are also highly questionable. A few years ago the Conservative Neo-Thomist philosopher, Edward Feser, strongly criticsed the morality in Watchmen and showed that it actually didn’t make a lot of sense. Nevertheless, the two novel’s writer, Alan Moore, is still one of the finest working today and has done much to raise comics to the level of a respected literary medium. Comics can do a brilliant job of entertaining, amusing, provoking and stimulating children’s – and adult’s minds. Blackman is right in that they do encourage children, especially boys, to read. And so her comments are not only welcome, they are, as the great green editor of 2000 AD would say, ‘Zarjaz!’. I recommend her for enrolment in the Squax dek Thargo (Friends of Tharg) for her appreciation of thrill-power.

A Prayer for the Persecuted Church from Ancient Iran

June 4, 2013

I was saddened and disgusted by recent reports of the persecution of Christians in Iran. The Iranian regime is cracking down on evangelical Christianity. Worship, preaching and Christian literature in Farsi is forbidden, churches have been closed and their pastors arrested. The most notable of these are Pastors Youcef Naderkhani and Abedini. They have been imprisoned and sent to the notoriously brutal Evin prison, where their captors are placing them under considerable pressure to convert to Islam. This is not the first time by any means that the Revolutionary regime has persecuted Christians. The Ayatollah Khomeini promised freedom for all religions in Iran, not just Islam. Despite this, the son of the Anglican bishop of Tehran was murdered in the 1980s, apparently by agents of the regime. Several Armenian clergy have also been killed.

Persecution of Christians in Iran down the Centuries

The persecution of Christians in Iran goes back centuries. The church was persecuted under the Sassanid emperors. The Mongols, after their conversion to Islam in the 12th/13th centuries persecuted and destroyed a flourishing Nestorian church that had spread across central Asia to China. Then in the 20th century there was the Armenian massacres. Although this was launched by the Ottoman Turks, it extended into Iran, where members of the Armenian minority were butchered by the Kurds. The massacres were not an isolated event, but part of a ‘Day of the Sword’ that also saw other Christian minorities attacked and murdered across the Middle East. The British traveller, Robert Byron, records an appeal by a Syriac mar in Iraq for help against the jihad declared against his people.

Persecution of Baha’is in Iran

Christians are certainly not alone in being persecuted in Iran. The most severe persecution has been inflicted on the Baha’is. These are, like the Admadis, considered an Islamic heresy, and are therefore regarded as outside the dhimmi designation that provides a limited tolerance for Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. Because one of the religion’s foundes, Bahaullah, was exiled by the Turkish authorities to Haifa, there is now a large body of conspiracist theorising that falsely accuses them of being an Israeli plot to undermine Islam. In Iran there have been a series of pogroms that have killed an estimated 50,000 Baha’is. Baha’is have been imprisoned, tortured and female believers gang-raped in order to force them to renouce their beliefs. Baha’is travelling to Iran have been forced to sign documents stating they have left the faith in order to enter the country. Any mention of this persecution inside Iran is also strictly forbidden. A Western businessman with dealings in Iran and Iranian friends and business partners was arrested when he returned to the country after writing a book on the pogrom against the Baha’is.

Muslim Iranians Outraged against Khomeinist Regime’s Violence and Persecution

This intolerance and persecution is not shared by many Iranian Muslims. John Simpson in his book on Iran records that the congregation for the funeral of the Anglican bishop’s son included the Christians’ Muslim friends and colleagues. The Shah was a thug and a tyrant, but older Iranians who lived under his rule state that they all considered themselves Iranians, regardless of individual faith. Iranian Muslims did have Baha’is and Zoroastrians amongst their friends. The rioting and demonstrations against the cartoons of Mohammed published in Denmark outraged many genuinely liberal and tolerant Iranians. The Iranian correspondent for the British magazine, Private Eye, reported a counter-demonstration against the riots at the remains of the Danish embassy the day after it was razed by a mob. Their members included many whose patriotism and love for their country cannot be denied. One of these was the quadroplegica veteran of the Iran-Iraq. This man was a mouth-painter, and painted a picture of Our Lady, who is also a revered figure in Islam. The magazine also noted that the blog of one of the Basiji commanders, who helped organise the riots and destruction, was flooded with comments from Iranians denouncing his actions. One even said that it was people like him, who were responsible for the suspicion and hatred of Islam in the West.

Life and Prayer of Simeon of Persia

The prayer is by Simeon of Persia, alias Simeon Barsabba’e. He was bishop of Ctesiphon, and was martyred there in 341 during the campaign against Christianity by the Persian Emperor, Shapur II. Just as the contemporary Iranian regime accuses Christians of treachery and disloyalty, so Simeon and his fellows were then. Amongst other crimes, he was accused of plotting treason in correspondence to the Roman emperor, Constatius II. He was ordered to convert to Zoroastrianism, but refused. He and a large number of other Christians were thus executed on Good Friday, 341. After his death, his sister, the virgin St. Pherbutha, was accused of witchcraft and martyred with her sister and another woman. The two bishops, St. Shahdost, and St. Barba’shmin, who succeeded Simeon to the see were also martyred in 342 and 346 respectively. The prayer by Simeon of Persia describes his despair at seeing his church destroyed and its people turned against him. Yet he is determined to continue in his faith so that he will win the crown of glory in heaven, where there will be no earthly persecutors.

‘Give me this crown, Lord; you know how I long for it,
for I have loved you with all my heart and all my being.
When I see you, I shall be filled iwth joy and you will give
me rest. I shall no longer have to live in this world and see
my people suffering, your churches destroyed, your altars
overthown, your devoted clergy everywhere persecuted,
the weak defiled, the lukewarm turned from the truth, and
my flock, that was so large reduced at the time of testing to
a handful.

I shall not see the many that seemed to be my friends
undergo an inward change, become hostile and seek my
death; or find those that were my friends for a while taken
from me by persecution, at the very time when the killers
are snapping their fingers at our people and lording it over
them.

Yet I mean to persevere in my vocation like a hero and
to walk bravely along the parth marked out for me, so that I
shall be an example to all your people in the East. I have
had the first place at table, I will have the first place too
whien it comes to dying; I will be the first to give my
blood. Then with my brethren I shall enter on that life in
which there are no cares, no anxiety, no solicitude, a life
where there is neither persecutor nor persecuted, neither
oppressor nor oppressed, neither tyrant nor victim of
tyranny. No threatening kings, no blustering prefects shall I
see there. No one there will cite me before his tribunal or
upset me with repeated menaces; there will be no on eto do
me violence or bully me.

I shall stumble no more, when once I have gained a
firm footing in you, the Way we all must walk in. My
weary limbs will find their rest in you, for you, Anointed,
are the Oil that is to anoint us. The grief in my heart will
be forgotten when I drink of you, the Chalice of our
salvation. The trears in my eyes you will wipe away, OJoy, O
Consolation’.

We pray that this current persecution will soon cease without the deaths of pastors Naderkhani, Abedini, and the other clergy and worshippers, as will the attacks on other religious minorities, such as the Baha’is and liberal Muslims. We pray that the pastors and other Christians and prisoners of conscience will soon be freed from jail, to live freely. We pray that God will sustain the pastors and their community in their faith, and that soon all Iranians will live in peace and friendship, regardless of their faith.

World without end, Amen.

The Sacrifice of Isaac: Francis Wheen Spouts Mumbo Jumbo

June 3, 2013

You may remember that way back in the last decade there was a spate of sceptical books attacking what their authors saw as pseudo-science. These included various New Age beliefs, and very often also Creationism and Intelligent Design. These books included Bad Science, by the Roman Catholic writer and science jounralist, Ben Goldacre, and How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, by Francis Wheen. Wheen’s a left-wing journalist, who has, I believe, written for the Guardian. He is a frequent guest on the News Quiz, a satirical panel show about the news on BBC’s Radio 4. In his introduction he stated that part of his purpose in writing the book was to defend the Enlightenment. These revivals of what he considered irrationalism threatened it. He confessed his admiration for the Enlightenment and its values, including its secularism.

Strange Days and Paranoia, Terrorism and Psychiatric Abuse of Dissidents in the 1970s

Now Wheen is an excellent writer. His book on the paranoia and chaos of the ’70s, Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia, is very good. It begins with Nixon and Watergate, and expands to include the fear surrounding Mao and the Gang of Four. He traces the way Mao’s doctrine of guerilla warfare formed the template for that decades western urban terrorists, including the Provisional IRA in Britain, the Rote Armee Fraktion or the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany and the Maoist terrorists in France. These latter emerged following the failure of the 1968 uprising to topple French capitalism, and drew intellectual inspiration and support from radical academics. One of these latter appears to have done little except march around his university campus disrupting the classes of other lecturers he considered to be bourgeois and reactionary. He also discusses the murky events surrouding Harold Wilson’s prime ministership and the preparations to remove him in a coup by those who suspected him of being a KGB agent. One of the most fascinating, and relevant pieces in the book is his description of how Soviet psychiatry came up with a new mental illness that would justify the forcible incarceration of dissidents. This was done under the pretext that they must be insane to challenge the great, Soviet workers’ paradise. The Soviet political abuse of psychiatry strongly influenced the BBC SF series, Blake’s 7. In the series, the totalitarian Federation used mind control, including drugged food and water, and the conditioning, brainwashing and psychiatric brutalisation of dissidents to maintain its brutal and corrupt rule. This particular episode in Soviet history should be particularly alarming and provide a stark warning to people of faith concerning some of the pronouncements made by contemporary atheists. Some of the New Atheists, like the Rational Response Squad, made it clear they thought religion was a psychiatric disorder. Even now some professional neurologists have stated that they look forward to the day when neuroscience will be used to cure radical or dangerous religious beliefs. Blake’s 7’s fictional federation also closed churches. Science Fiction has been described as the literature of warning, and Blake’s 7 provided a fictional treatment of the Soviet psychiatric persecution of dissidents. The Soviet medicalisation of religion as a psychiatric disorder is one that some atheist scientists now seem to be following on their own. They’re either unaware of or unconcerned by their totalitarian predecessors.

Wheen’s Mumbo Jumbo and the Sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis

Much of Wheen’s book on ‘Mumbo Jumbo’ is unremarkable. It tackles some of the bizarre New Age beliefs. It shows his own left-wing views in criticising Thatcherism and her pursuit of the free market. Wheen is, however, an atheist. Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, to which Wheen has contributed, has joked about how Wheen called him an ‘irrational theist’. The book makes it clear that Wheen views religion as not just wrong, but dangerous. It shows the effect of 9/11 and the subsequent jihadi attacks on atheist opinions towards religion in general. Wheen does not consider them the action of just one religion, or even or a movement within that religion, but due to religion as a whole. He specifically blames the patriarch Abraham and the sacrifice of his son, Isaac, for causing suicide bombing. God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is, in Wheen’s view, a demand for the blind faith and for believers to give up their lives in the service of their God. It is the origin of the blind faith of the suicide bombers. He then rants about how Abraham was a barbarian who should be excluded from the tables of civilised people.

This is profoundly wrong. Wheen misses the point about the sacrifice of Isaac completely. His Comments do, however, say volumes about received atheist opinion towards religion. Mostly, this is that many prominent atheists actually aren’t concerned about the basic facts behind religious events and phenomena before they utter their opinions.

Abraham and God’s Mercy: God Unlike Pagan Gods, Does Not Demand Human Sacrifice

For Jews, Abraham is not a symbol of fanaticism and blind faith, but mercy. This is shown by his conversation with the Almighty concerning the number of good people, who would have to be in Sodom before the Lord destroyed the city. This goes down to about ten, showing that even if only a minuscule number of righteous people are present in a place so steeped in evil that the outcry against it goes up to the Lord Himself, God will withhold His anger from it. As for the sacrifice of Isaac, that has to be seen in the context of the pagan religious practices of the Ancient Near East. Human sacrifice was an accepted part of the ancient Near Eastern religions. It’s found in the law codes of the Hittites. In ancient Phoenicia, Canaan and Carthage infant children were burned alive as sacrifices to the pgan gods. The tophets, the sacrificial altars on which these poor mites were killed, have been found in the remains of Carthage itself. The remains of these sacrifices have also been found in ancient Canaan. The point the story of God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac makes is that the Lord does not want people to sacrifice humans to Him. Yes, He rewards the faith that makes people wish to fulfill His commands, even to death, but does not want them to make that sacrifice. Abraham does indeed make the pyre and prepare to sacrifice his son, but this is halted by God sending a ram, caught in a thicket, for the patriarch to sacrifice instead. The whole point of the story is against suicide bombing.

Wheen Ignorant of Scholarship on Ancient Paganism and the Meaning of Isaac’s Sacrifice

Few people are experts in Ancient Near Eastern culture. But you don’t have to be. I remember studying the sacrifice of Isaac in RE (Religious Education) at my old Church of England School. Wheen went to one of the British public schools, which in this case, for transatlantic readers, means that he went to an elite private school. Despite having a very expensive education, he clearly either didn’t study this part of the Bible in RE, or simply wasn’t paying attention when they did. Even if they didn’t study that part of the Bible, Wheen could still have tried to understand it simply by consulting a commentary. There are a number of good commentaries on scripture, some of which are available online. But Wheen didn’t. He simply assumed that the apparent message he read into the text was the correct one. His failure to consult a commentary or what Christians and Jews actually historically believe and say about this event also shows a completely dismissive attitude towards their beliefs. He appears to beleive that traditional Jewish and Christian views of scripture are of so little importance, so automatically wrong, that an atheist should not even remotely consider studying them before making their pronouncements.

The Marxist Origin of Suicide Bombing

As for suicide bombing, although this is now a favourite weapon of militant Islam, it was first used by the Tamil Tigers. As Marxists, they were atheists, who clearly wre not following a divine command, still less of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus Christ. But this is not mentioned by Wheen. Possibly he didn’t know about it. It does, however, show the deep antipathy of part of the atheist Left towards Judeo-Christian religion. There’s also an element of the secularist belief that all religions are somehow the same. If that is true, then therefore all religions must be equally violent. Thus Wheen sought to find the ultimate origin of the contemporary jihadist attacks not in today’s politics, or the violent theology and ideology of the terrorists themselves, but further back in Abraham’s lifetime, so he could blame and disparage all of the three Abrahamic faiths. Wheen’s other book are well worth reading, and much of his book on Mumbo Jumbo is too. Rather than being a product of reasoned thought and careful consideration, Wheen’s views on the sacrifice of Isaac in the Old Testament are merely the product of atheist ignorance and anti-religious bigotry.

Human Fertility and the Problem of the Origin of Religion

June 2, 2013

One of the other arguments I had with the atheists on this blog a few years ago was about the role of human fertility as the origin of religion. According to one atheist, religion evolved so that humans would have more children. It’s easy to see how this idea came about. There are religions that encourage their members to have many children. In the West, Roman Catholicism is the best known example. In the ancient world, including the Bible, people hoped that God or the gods would provide them with many children and as well as abundant crops and livestock. Children and descendants and agricultural fertility were not just benefits, they were absolute necessities as famine and starvation were all too real. One estimate of child mortality in the ancient world at the time of Carthage suggests that 5-6 out of ten children died in infancy. People, tribes and states thus wished to have plenty of children not just to remain wealthy, powerful, with a strong army and an abundant labour forces, but also simply to survive. The Canaanite religion of ancient Syria made the conflict against sterility and death part of its religion. In its mythology, Baal fought a long battle against his adversary, Mot, whose name meant sterility or death.

There are certainly scholars of religion, such as John Bowker, who do consider the encouragement of fertility as the origin, but not the total explanation, of religion. In his article, ‘Religion’ in The oxford Dictionary of World Religions, states ‘Religions are the earliest cultural systems of which we have evidence for theprotection of gene-replication and the nurture of children.’ This is true even of those religions that consider celibacy to be a higher vocation. Boker himself is certainly not uncritical of this explanation. He states clearly that ‘there is much that is clearly wrong’, and has written a book tackling the subject, Is God a Virus? Genes, Culture and Relgion. His view is that genetic inheritance and Darwinian evolution can only explain the emergence of humans capacity for certain activities and behaviours. This accounts why religions frequently share similar features. It does not, however, determine what people do with this biological preparedness.

Religions are also multi-faceted and include a number of different features. This means it is difficult for materialist explanations of religion to reduce its origin and function to any single factor. Early attempts to explain religion materialistically viewed them as attempts by early humans to explain natural phenomena. The sociologist Emile Durkheim believed religion served to organise society and create a vital sense of social solidarity. The view that religion emerged to encourage fertility appears to have been advanced in the 1990s as an attempt by socio-biology and later evolutionary psychology to provide an explanation of religion in accorance with evolutionary biology. This view also has its flaws. Bowker himself was aware that this evolutionary biological theory of the origin of religion was problematic and had its opponents. One of the problems of this view is the role of asceticism in many religions. If religion evolved solely to encourage increased reproduction, it would not explain the ascetism that also forms part of many faiths. Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, have members who withdraw from the world to lead celibate lives. In Christianity this includes the clergy in Roman Catholicism, and the higher clergy in eastern Orthodoxy. Monasticism is a part of both Christianity and Buddhism, while Hinduism has sadhus, yogis and yoginis, ascetics, who pursue their devotions in solitude. The ancient Babylonians also had orders of priestesses, who were required to remain celibate. They were aware of the dangers of overpopulation, and these religious orders, as well as disease, natural disasters and infertility, were viewed as being divinely established to prevent it.

The Atrahasis epic, the earliest flood myth from Mesopotamia, states that the humans were originally created by the gods to do their work for them. Over the centuries humanity increased so that

‘Twelve hundred years had not yet passed
When the land extended and the people multiplied.
The earth was bellowing like a bull,
The gods got distressed with their uproar.’

The gods then attempted to reduce humanity’s numbers with disease, followed by a drought. Humans go on breeding, however, and soon are reduced to starvation and cannibalism. People are forced to eat their children. The gods then send a flood to wipe them out completely, but the god Ea warns, and so saves, Atrahasis. The epic ends with Ea advising the mother-goddess Mami/ Nintu on how the danger of overpopulation is to be avoided in the future through the Malthusian checks of sterility, infant mortality and celibacy. He says to her

‘O Lady of Birth, creatress of the Fates…
Let there be among the people bearing women and barren women,
Let there be among the people a Pahittu-demon,
Let is seize the baby from the mother’s lap,
Establish Ugbabtu priestesses, Entu priestesses and Igisitu-priestesses.
They shall indeed be tabooed, and thus cut-off child-bearing.

Now this awareness and desire to avoid overpopulation is just one aspect of Babylonian religion. Nevertheless it, and asceticism and celibacy in other religions, as well as the incredibly varied nature of religion and religious experience, suggest that while fertility generally remains an important part of religion, it cannot be considered its origin.

Sources

John Bowker, ‘Religion’, in John Bowker, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997) xv-xxiv.

Anton Jirku, The World of the Bible (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1967)

Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq 3rd edition (London: Penguin 1992).

Shirin Ebadi and the Regime’s Oppression of Working-Class Iranians

June 1, 2013

It’s the centenary this week of the death of the British Suffragette, Emily Davidson. Davidson protested against the exclusion of women from the franchise by jumping in front of the King’s Horse at the Derby. More recent historical research has suggested that she actually hadn’t wanted to commit suicide, and fell, rather than deliberately jumped. Regardless of her precise actions, her death has become one of the most notorious events associated with the campaign for votes for women. The BBC and a number of other media have been running features commemorating the event and the Suffragette campaign over the past week or so.

Shirin Ebadi and the New Suffragettes

The Independent newspaper has been running a series, ‘The New Suffragettes’, on contemporary women campaigning for women’s rights. Yesterday’s (Friday, 31st May) edition featured the Iranian judge and social campaigner, Shirin Ebadi. Ebadi was the country’s first female, appointed by the Shah. She lost that position following Khomeini’s Revolution in 1979. She was also dismissed from her position on another prominent legal organisation because it was considered that her gender was unsuitable for such a position of authority. She has campaigned for divorced women in Iran to gain custody of their sons, as well as their daughters, and has set up a number of NGOs to improve conditions for women and the poor in Iran. She has particularly campaigned against the persecution of Iranian dissidents. She also campaigned for the release of the Canadian Iranian young woman, who was brutally imprisoned in Iran a few years ago. She has lived in exile in London after attempts on her life, sponsored by the Regime, and the savage beating of her husband. In the article she described her shock when reading transcripts of a recorded meeting between members of the Iranian secret police. Reading the report, she came across a statement there was a piece where one of the government thugs said, ‘And the next one’s Ebadi’. It made it all too clear that she was one of those marked for death.

Despite this, she is still very much a Muslim. She stated in the interview that the low position of women in Middle Eastern society was not due to Islam, but to these nation’s traditional patriarchal culture. The Independent noted that despite official hostility, she is a real heroine to many Iranians and has been greeted by cheering mobs when she has appeared to speak to them.

Ebadi and Swedish Journalistic Colleague on Right-Wing Oppression in Iran

A year or so ago I came across a book written by her and a Swedish journalist in one of the bargain bookshops in my home town. It was written from a left-wing, Social Democratic perspective. I seem to recall that her co-writer belonged to one of the unions or other left-wing organisations in Sweden. The book was an attempted to describe the regime’s oppression of the Iranian working class. It also attempted to argue that the Iranian regime was not attempting to buid nuclear weapons, and that there should therefore be no military action taken against the country. The first point was made abundantly clear by her descriptions of thuggery, arrest and violence against Iranian factory workers, truckers, busmen and trade unionists. The second argument I found much less convincing. Her point was that in Iran much, if not most of the oil revenue is exported to gain foreign currency. The Iranian regime is trying to develop nuclear power to lower domestic oil consumption, so that more can be sold abroad. The Iranian government is, however, aggressively anti-Semitic and has made a number of vicious threats against Israel, America and their European allies. It also has developed missiles with capable of reaching Vienna. Even if the primary purpose of Iran’s nuclear programme is to provide electricity, the possibility is all too real that it could be diverted to military purposes.

Ebadi and her co-writer were critical of contemporary Western writers on Iran, who glowingly described the life-style and attitudes of the westernised middle class. If I recall correctly, they viewed this as extremely condescending and culturally imperialist. They also attacked such attitudes for excluding the mass of the Iranians, the ordinary Iranian working class, who were not westernised.

Suppression of Worker’s Organisations by Revolutionary Regime

In the first half of the book she described how the fragmented Iranian radical left, which at one time consisted of 74 different organisations and groups, was suppressed by Khomeini and his followers after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Their members were rounded up, imprisoned, tortured and killed, or forced into exile. As I mentioned, Ebadi herself is still a devout Muslim, and denounced this as un-Islamic. She is critical of the radical Marxist Iranian group, the MEK, as it is militantly atheist and deliberately broadcasts and publishes blasphemous material in order to offend Muslims. Trade unions and other working class political organisations are banned. Their members are harrassed and imprisoned under trumped-up charges of colonialism or collaboration with imperialism. Wages for Agha and Begum Average Iranian are kept appallingly low, and working conditions are horrendous. The only working-class organisations that are permitted are factory shuras (councils). These deliberately include both employees and employers, and exist to promote the regime’s version of Islam in the workplace. Ebadi and her fellow author state that these councils have been compared with the DAF (Deutsche Arbeitsfront), the labour organisation the Nazis introduced to replace trade unions and control the German workforce. In the last days of the Shah, according to Ebadi, the regime was so terrified of armed revolution that soldiers were stationed in the factories to prevent the workers from rising up. The contemporary Revolutionary regime has done exactly the same.

The ‘Millionaire Mullahs’

She describes the close alliance between the merchants of the Tehran Bazaar and the governing ulema. This has produced a new class of ‘millionaire mullahs’. This is the English translation of a Farsi term, which literally means ‘the son of a mullah who becomes a prince’. Although private property is sanctioned and protected in Iranian Revolutionary law, the country’s economy is dominated by the bonyads, Islamic charities that own large sectors of Iranian industry, including oil. The largest of these is the ‘Foundation for the Poor’, part of whose remit is to provide subsidized housing. As a result, there is massive corruption, with the mullahs exploiting their control of these bonyads and their industries to enrich themselves.

Working-Class Protest Action

As a result of this, there is massive discontent among ordinary, working class Iranians. Strikes and industrial action are brutally suppressed. In one case, Tehran’s busmen attempted to form a union and were arrested and imprisoned. Nevertheless, some concessions have been wrung out of the authorities when members of a particular factory or industry have had all they can take. These then organise mass protests, sometimes numbering thousands. These then force their way into the management’s offices, or those of the officials in charge of that particular industry.

Poor Conditions and Violence Towards Women

Women have particularly suffered under the Revolutionary regime. They are paid less than men, and in addition to working long hours are also expected to cook the meals and do the housework at home. There is also high male unemployment. This has resulted in a rise in domestic violence as unemployed men take out their frustrations on their wives.

Ahmadinejad’s Attempts at Reform Blocked by Regime

Ebadi recognises that Ahmadinejad himself comes from a poor background, and was serious about improving conditions for the Iranian working class. He made a speech during his election campaign in which he promised that he would put more on the sofiyeh, the cloth spread on the grounds on which Iranians place their food, like the dinner table in Europe. His attempts at reform have been stifled, and will continue to be thwarted, by the structure of the Iranian state and its component institutions. The Pasdaran – The Revolutionary Guards – and the Regime’s theocratic governing bodies are directly involved and profitting from the exploitation of the working class. As a result they have more than once block Ahmadinejad’s attempts to improve matters, and arrested or removed from office his allies.

Corruption and Exploitation by Liberal Politicians

Ebadi is critical of the apparently liberal politicians and members of the ulema, including the former president Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani is a pistachio merchant, and notoriously corrupt. He and the other liberals are, according to the book, interested solely in pursuing their own commercial profit and careers. She recalls the outrage felt when the regime agreed to meet with striking workers in one of the nation’s football stadiums. The politicians promised political and economic improvements – raised wages, better conditions. In the event, when the meeting finally occurred the workers found instead that it was being staged as a propaganda event to promote Rafsanjani’s political career.

Dispossession and Oppression of Ethnic Minorities

The regime has also worked to oppress and dispossess the country’s numerous ethnic minorities. The Farsi-speaking population accounts for only about 51 per cent of the population. Other ethnic groups include Kurds, Luris, Baluchis, Turkic-speaking peoples, including nomads, and Arabs in Khuzestan. These people’s have seen their homelands seized and settled by Farsi Iranians. Some of these areas, such as Resht in the north, and Khuzestan in the west, are rich in natural resources. The industries in these areas are run by Farsis, and frequently employ only Farsis, so the indigenous peoples are excluded from enjoying the benefits of their own homelands. A similarly policy has been pursued in China in Sinjiang, so that Han Chinese have settled and dominated industry in the homeland of the Muslim Uighurs. It is this policy that is responsible for the discontent and jihadist violence amongst the Uighurs.

Exploitation in the Oil Industry

Khuzestan possesses considerable oil reserves, and a result is one of the major centres of the Iranian oil industry. Working conditions are appalling, with migrant workers housed in camps surrounded by armed guards. Wages are slightly higher than in the rest of the country, but are still insuffient to support the workers. Many have become heavily in debt to support themselves, and drugs are widely used. The Regime and the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guards, are heavily involved in this trade. The book includes a statement by an oil worker that while there, he saw the column bringing the drugs flanked by guards from the Pasdaran.

Iranian Fascist, Question of Support by Leftists like George Galloway

The picture of the regime presented by the book is one of a brutal suppression. It is a regime that would be denounced as Fascist, as well as racist and colonialist if it occurred in a western country in the Americas or Europe. Ebadi herself and her Swedish co-writer come across very much as very left-wing. They are pro-Iranian, and definitely anti-racist. The book raises an important question, notably the support the Regime has enjoyed from members of the European far Left. The most prominent Left-wing politician in this regard is George Galloway, the former Labour MP and one of the founders of the Respect Party. Galloway now has a job as a presenter on Iranian Press TV. He previously supported Saddam Hussein, and there’s a clip of him hailing the deceased dictator for, amongst other qualities, his indefatiguability. It would seem from Ebadi’s and her colleague’s book that Galloway abandoned his socialist principles a long time ago to support an oppressive regime that attacks the Iranian working class and brutalises and dispossesses its ethnic minorities.

Funniest Description of a Philosopher of the Week: Nietzsche

June 1, 2013

This is from the trailer for the BBC suffragette comedy, Up the Women:

‘Who was Nietzsche?’
‘Like Shocked-headed Peter, only much crosser!’

It does just about sum up Germany’s greatest preacher of splenetic Nihilism and the Superman.

Well, I liked it, anyway.

Ethiopian Martyrs under WW 2 Italian Fascism

June 1, 2013

The Ethiopian Coptic Church is one of the most ancient churches in Africa. The country converted to Christianity under King Ezana in the fourth century. The currency he established was on a par with the Roman denarius, so that the country could freely trade with Rome. The Copts are Monophysites, who believe that Christ had only a divine nature, while Chalcedonian Christians in the western churches – Roman Catholics, Protestants and Greek and Russian Orthodox consider that Christ was both human and divine. The theological argument for this is that Christ’s humanity was swallowed up in His divinity, in the same way a small drop of water is swallowed up by an immense ocean. As I understand it, the liturgical language of the Church and the Ethiopian Bible is Ge’ez, an ancient language descended from the South Arabian languages. It’s therefore a semitic language, related to Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac, the language of the Syrian Orthodox church, which is itself descended from Aramaic, the language probably spoke by our Lord Himself. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church received its Christianity from the Egyptian Copts. During the succeeding centuries the Ethiopians were in communion with the other eastern Orthodox churches, and translated a series of theological and other religious works from Coptic and Aramaic.

The Book of Enoch

The Ethiopian Orthodox Bible also contains a book not in the Western Biblical canon – the Book of Enoch. This is about the journey of the prophet Enoch to heaven. It contains a series of passages describing the Fall of the Angels and predicting the arrival of the Messiah at the End of Time. This Messiah is called the Son of Man, the title, which Christ uses of Himself in the Gospels.

Ethiopian Society and Church Similar to Old Testament

The Church itself, and traditional Ethiopian society, has been described as very similar to that of the Old Testament. According to the ancient epic of the Ethiopian emperors, the Kebra Nagast, the country’s monarchs are descended from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The lyre is still played in Ethiopian, and as in King David’s time. The churches each possess a copy of the Ark of the Covenant. Ethiopian men also wear the tobe, a kind of toga. The country’s great buildings include a number of churches cut into the very rock itself, so that they are below ground level. These were built in the Middle Ages to protect them from attack from the neighbouring Muslim peoples. Many traditional Ethiopian names are direct statements or references to Christian theology. For example, the name of the former Emperor Hailie Selassie, means ‘Power of the Trinity’.

Invasion of Ethiopia and Defeat of Italian Army during World War II

During the Second World War Ethiopia was attacked and conquered by Fascist Italy as part of Mussolini’s project to create a revived, Roman Empire in the Mediterranean and Africa. This included a brutal extermination campaign in the Ethiopian countryside in 1937 under Marshal Rodolfo Graziani. Graziani was responsible for a series of atrocities during Italian invasion of Libya, earning him the nickname ‘the Hyena of Libya’. During his campaign in Ethiopia Graziani was responsible for killing a quarter of million Ethiopians. These atrocities were in response to an attempted assassination on Graziani in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. After its failure, the assassins fled to the ancient monastery of Debra Libanos. Graziani order the massacre of the monastery’s monks and nuns, as well as the citizens of Addis Ababa itself, and directed a campaign of terror against educated Ethiopians. The Fascist colonial regime finally ended in 1941 when British and Ethiopian forces entered Ethiopia from Sudan. On May 5, 1941, the Emperor Hailie Selassie re-entered the ancient capital of Addis Ababa. Older people in the area around Bath and Bristol in the English West Country remember that during the War, Hailie Selassie’s children were sent to safety in Bath.

Selassie’s Overthrow

In the event, Hailie Selassie’s failure to modern the country and his cover-up of a famine in one of the Empire’s provinces resulted in him becoming increasing unpopular. He was overthrown in a coup in 1973, which ushered in a Marxist, military dictatorship until Communism itself finally fell. The great rock cut churches have been featured in a number of programmes on the BBC, including one where they were visited by the great architectural historian and broadcast, Dan Cruikshank.

The Legend of St. Tekla Haymanot and the 1985 Famine

In 1985 Collins published a retelling of the legend of the Ethiopian saint, St. Tekla Haymanot, by Elizabeth Laird and an Ethiopian priest, Abba Aregawi Wolde Gabriel, to raise money for Oxfam’s campaign against the Ethiopian famine. It was that famine that prompted Bob Geldof’s Band Aid and Live Aid records and concert to provide relief for its African victims. The frontispiece contained a prayer, written in Ge’ez that is recited at the festivals of St. Tekla Haymanot and the other saints of the Orthodox Church. The prayer gives glory and praise to God, Our Lady, and Christ’s Cross. The priest requests that the prayer may rise before the Lord’s throne, and praises Him for providing the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and food and clothing.

“Of him who has given us to eat this bread,
Of him, who has given us to drink this cup,
Of him, who has prepared fr us our food and
our clothing.”

Sources
‘Africa, Italian East (AOI, Africa Orientale Italiana)’, ‘Ethiopian War’, ‘Graziani, Rodolfo’, and ‘Selassie, Hailie’, in Philip V. Cannistraro, ed., Historical Dictionary of Fascist Italy (Westport, Connecticut/ London: Greenwood Press 1982)

Elizabeth Laird and Abba Aregawi Wolde Gabriel, The Miracle Child: A Story from Ethiopia (London: Collins 1985).

Edward Ullendorf, The Ethiopians: An Introduction to Country and People, 3rd Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1973).