Posts Tagged ‘Abyssinia’

Radio 4 Programme Next Thursday on the Repatriation of Looted Museum Exhibits Following Black Lives Matter

August 18, 2020

The Radio Times also states that next Thursday on Radio 4 at 11.30 am there’s a documentary on the debate about the repatriation of looted African artefacts now on display in British museums. The blurb for it on page 125 of the Radio Times runs

In the wake of protesters in Bristol pulling down a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston, Gary Younge talks to museum curators as they review what is on display.

There’s an additional piece by Simon O’Hagan on the previous page, 124, which adds

Museums might be closed, but curators are keeping busy reassessing what they have on display – minds focused by the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol in June. In the words of one curator, “in Britain you’re never more than 150 miles rom a looted African object.”

Presented by Gary Younge, who discovers that when the public is re-admitted to museums after lockdown, there is a distinct possibility that some display cases may have notable absences.

The debate over the return of looted and seized objects to indigenous communities around the world has been going on for several decades. Much of it is about the display of human remains. A few years ago a series about the British Museum showed that august institution repatriating a set of indigenous Australian burials to Tasmanian people from which they were seized. It’s not just African and indigenous peoples demanding that their ancestors and their property should be returned. The Greeks have famously been demanding the return of the Elgin Marbles for decades, if not since they very moment Lord Elgin collected them in the 19th century. In very many cases, I don’t doubt that the moral argument is with those demanding their return, and that it’s the right thing to do.

The mention of the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol adds a dimension that complicates the issue. The repatriation of these objects is supposed to be about modern, western museums correcting the moral injustices of an imperial past. But many of the looted objects themselves are the products of slaving societies, and were seized by British forces during wars fought to extirpate the slave trade.

The Benin Bronzes are case in point. These are superbly sculpted bronze heads, which were made as part of shrines to the chief’s oba. Literally meaning ‘right arm’, the word also denotes his spiritual power, rather like the numa of the pagan Roman emperors. However, Benin, then Dahomey, was a major centre of the African slave trade. It had a plantation economy centred on cotton production like the American Deep South, and was a major exporter. So much so that the British launched a war against them from 1850 to 1852 after their king, Guezo, refused to give it up and continued trading. The bronzes were seized by the victorious British forces.

Nobody was talking about their repatriation until the 1980s, when ‘African radical’ and the highly controversial leader of Brent council, Bernie Grant, demanded their return. I’ve no doubt that Grant was motivated by genuine indignation about the humiliation of an African nation by the British empire. But there is an irony here in that such a very outspoken opponent of anti-Black racism should have been seeking to return objects that had been taken as part of military action against an African slave state. And one that had absolutely no qualms, and grew rich, from enslaving the ancestors of Black Brits, West Indians and Americans like Grant.

Ditto with some of the objects that may have been returned to Ethiopia. A year or so ago the I reported that a particularly holy cross belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which had been seized by the British army in the 19th century, had also been repatriated to its country of origin. I wondered if the relic had also been looted in a similar campaign launched in that century to stop Abyssinian slave-raiding across the border into Sudan and what is now Kenya. If so, then it could be argued that it should not be repatriated, as it was a legitimate spoil in a war the British were justified in waging.

And let’s not be under any illusion that the African slaving nations wouldn’t also have enslaved the British servicemen they fought. One of the documents I found cataloguing the materials on slavery in the Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol was a parliamentary blue book on the British action against the African slavers in Lagos. One of the chiefs involved stated that if he won, he was going to shave the head of the British commander and make him carry his palanquin. Which sounds very much like a declaration that he intended to enslave him.

I think the area of the repatriation of objects looted from Africa is much more complicated morally than is being discussed and presented, and that African involvement in and culpability for the slave trade is being quietly glossed over in order to present a cosy, straightforward narrative of imperial aggression and guilt.

 

American Imperialism Aiding the Saudi and Israeli Ethnic Cleansing of Indigenous Middle Eastern Christians

December 9, 2017

There’s been some coverage here in the west of the underground Christian church in China. China’s a Communist state, and although religion has been allowed to re-emerge after its ferocious persecution under Mao, it is heavily regulated. There’s an official church, which has to agree to and abide by the various conditions set down by the Communist authorities. Alongside this is a growing underground church, that meets in secret and is heavily persecuted because it is outside the control of the Communist party.

Fewer people, however, are aware that there’s also a growing underground church in Iran. The Anglican church in Tehran, which is recognised and tolerated, is remarkable for a Christian church in a Middle Eastern, Islamic country, in that most of its members are indigenous Iranians. About three per cent of the Iranian population is composed of Armenian Christians, who have their own churches. But outside these official, tolerated churches, there is a secret church of indigenous Iranians, who are turning from Islam to Christ. Apostasy is banned under Islamic, sharia law. The penalty has traditionally been death, although some law schools were of the opinion that the death penalty could only be imposed if the apostate then blasphemed against Islam. Other legal scholars stated that the apostate from Islam should be imprisoned for three days so that they could reconsider their decision to abandon Islam. If they repented during this time, they would be spared. This means that those Iranians converting to Christianity do so at the risk of their own lives. They are savagely persecuted and imprisoned. At the same time, the Iranian authorities surround the Armenian churches with armed police to make sure that only Armenians go there to worship. The Armenians have adopted a series of tactics to help their Iranian co-religionists avoid the police. One of these is teaching them a few words or phrases of Armenian, so that they can pass themselves off as Armenian Christians, and so avoid arrest, imprisonment and torture.

This isn’t widely known in the West, and I don’t think this is an accident. America is a profoundly religious country, but I think the support of religious freedom by the American military-industrial complex is, and has always been, cynically utilitarian. There was a massive campaign of Christian evangelism and preaching in America itself during the Cold War. You think of all the extreme right-wing Christian movements that emerged in the 50s, like Moral Re-Armament, and so on, that were dedicated not just to spreading Christianity, but also combatting Communism. Or, for that matter, just about any other left-wing, progressive movement. Even if it was led by other Christians. Communism is an aggressively materialistic political system. Marx actually wrote little about religion, beyond his famous words that it was ‘the opium of the people’, but he certainly believed his system was an extension of the materialist doctrines of the ancient world and the Enlightenment philosophes. He took over their critique of religion and that of Ludwig Feuerbach, which viewed religion as a projection of humanity’s own alienated essence, and extended it. Lenin himself was bitterly anti-religious, and the persecution of religious believers – Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Taoists, the followers of indigenous shamanic religions and so on – was state policy in many Communist countries.

Hence the promotion of Christianity and the defence of religious freedom against a persecuting, literally Satanic, evil empire was a useful ideological tool for the capitalist leaders of society during the Cold War. Thus much of the religious literature published during the Cold War stressed the anti-Christian nature of Communism to the point where this overshadowed the other atrocities and crimes against human rights committed by these regimes. Such as the artificial famines Stalin created during the collectivisation of agriculture, the deportation of ethnic minorities to Siberia and the persecution of dissenting socialist and Communist intellectuals.

But very little is said about the persecution of the underground Iranian church. And I don’t think this is an accident. I think it’s because it doesn’t serve American geopolitical interests, and those of its allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. China’s a Communist country, and so atheism is the official state dogma, even if it is not as rigorously enforced as it has been. But Iran and the other Middle Eastern countries are religious states to a greater or lesser degree. And American foreign policy in the Middle East has consisted of supporting theocratic and Islamic fundamentalist regimes and movements against secular Arab nationalism or socialism, as these are seen as too close to Communism. Hence the hostility to Gamal Nasser’s Egypt, which was socialist, but not Communist. In the case of Saudi Arabia, America and the West forged an alliance that goes back to the 1920s. In return for the right to exploit the country’s oil, America and the West pledged themselves to support the country and its rulers. Saudi Arabia is an extremely intolerant state, where the only permitted religion is Wahhabi Islam. No other religions are tolerated. There are indigenous Shi’a Muslims, but they are also savagely persecuted. Their villages do not have running water or electricity, and their religious literature and holy books will be confiscated if they are discovered by the authorities. A few years ago the Grand Mufti, the religious head of Saudi Arabia, declared that the Shi’a were heretics ‘worthy of death’, a chilling endorsement of religious genocide. And the Shi’a aren’t the only non-Wahhabi community to be subjected to his prayers for pious violence. The other year he also led prayers calling on Allah to destroy Jews and Christians.

Saudi Arabia is one of the main sponsors of Islamist terrorism. It is not Iran, nor Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11. 17 out of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, and the trail from them goes all the way to the top of Saudi society. They were active sponsors of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, which became the Taliban. The current Saudi king and his head of intelligence were also responsible for funding and aiding al-Qaeda and ISIS in their attacks on the other Islamic nations of the region. In continuing to support Saudi Arabia, America, Britain and the other western countries are supporting a viciously intolerant state that persecutes other religions, including Christians.

The other pillar of western interests and foreign policy in the Middle East is Israel. Israel is a White, European/American settler state, and it looks towards Europe and America rather than the Middle East. And it’s also religiously intolerant. The official state religion is Orthodox Judaism. Israel defines itself as the Jewish state, and the Law of Return stipulates that only Jews may become citizens. The Israeli government has also repeatedly refused calls to allow the Palestinians, who fled the country in 1948 fearing massacre by the Israelis to return, as this would upset the ethnic composition of the country. At the same time the Israeli state has pursued a policy of ethnic cleansing, expelling and massacring the indigenous Palestinian population. And this includes Christians.

Before the foundation of Israel in 1948, 25 per cent of the population of Palestine was Christian. Now it’s only one per cent. The literature on the dwindling Christian community states that this is because of pressure from both Israel and Islam. The Christian community has suffered persecution from Muslims, as they are seen as traitors, even though many Palestinian Christians are as bitterly opposed to the Israeli occupation as their compatriots. However, other historians have also pointed out that traditionally, Muslims and Christians coexisted peacefully in Palestine. In one of the papers on Israel and Palestine in Albert Hourani’s book, The Modern Middle East, it is stated that Muslim Palestinians traditionally regarded Christian churches as mawsin, an Arabic term which means holy, sacrosanct, and were thus treated with respect. Palestinian Christians, however, have complained about their treatment by the Israeli authorities. Special permits are required before new churches may be built, and the authorities are not keen to give them.

And like Muslims, Christians have also been attacked by Israeli racist extremists. A little while ago a Christian monastery in Israel was the subject of a price-tag attack by Israeli extremists. The price-tag attacks are acts of destruction in retaliation for Palestinian attacks on Jews or Jewish property. They’re called ‘price-tag’ because the attackers leave a mock price-tag behind giving some cost for the damage done. The Israeli authorities were keen to distance their country from the attack, and tried to present it as somehow unique. But I got the distinct impression that this is far from the case. About ten or so years ago Channel 4 screened a programme by a Black presenter, in which he went to Israel and covered the maltreatment of Christians there. This included an attempt by a group of Orthodox Jews to terrorise the members of a church of Messianic Jews. In fact, the Messianic Jews were saved by the Muslim doorman, who effectively blocked the Orthodox posse from coming in. And the programme gave the impression that this was actually quite common, and that it was frequently Muslims, who saved Christians from violence at the hands of Jewish settlers.

This is all kept very hidden from the American Christian public. The tours of Israel arranged by right-wing Christian Zionist groups in America and the Israeli authorities will not allow American or western Christians to meet their Palestinian co-religionists. And while there’s a considerable amount of information on the web about Israeli intolerance and persecution of Christians, in the mainstream western media it is always presented as the fault of Muslims. And the right-wing press, such as the Times and Telegraph, have published any number of articles presenting Israel as the protector of the region’s Christians, often with quotes from a Christian Arab to that effect. Thus the Christian Zionist right in America are supporting a state, which has expelled the majority of its indigenous Christians from its borders and continues to limit their freedom of worship. Just as it does Muslims.

Some of the motivation behind this Christian Zionism is based in apocalyptic theology. Christian Zionism started in the 19th century, when some Christians decided that they wanted to refound the ancient state of Israel in order to bring about Christ’s Second Coming. This now includes a final battle between good and evil. This used to be between the forces of capitalism and Communism, but has now morphed into the forces of the Christian West and Israel versus Islam. At the same time, the American Conservatives started supporting Israel in compensation for the defeats America had suffered in the Vietnam War, so that American Christian leaders declared that the Israelis shared their values.

I also think there’s an element of religious imperialism here as well. In the 19th century British explorers to other parts of the Christian world, including Greece when it was dominated by the Ottoman Empire, and Abyssinia, declared that these nations’ traditional churches were backwards and obstacles to their peoples’ advancement. They therefore recommended that they should be destroyed, and the Greeks, Ethiopians or whoever should embrace one of the western forms of Christianity instead. it wouldn’t surprise me if the same attitude permeated American Zionist Christian attitudes towards Middle Eastern Christians. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the same kind of Christian fundamentalist pastors, who rant about how ‘Satanic’ Roman Catholicism is, also don’t believe that the ancient churches of the Middle East – the Syriac and Coptic Churches – are also not really Christian.

Thus American imperialism, and the Christian Zionists in the case of Israel, are supporting states dedicated to removing the indigenous Christian communities from their parts of the Middle East.

And American Christians are more fervent in their Zionism than American Jews. Norman Finkelstein has repeatedly stated and demonstrated how American Jews were traditionally uninterested in Israel. And Tony Greenstein, a Jewish British critic of Zionism, has also shown that the majority of Jews around the world wished to remain in the Diaspora, but live as equal, respected citizens of the countries in which they were born. There are a growing number of Jewish Americans, who despise Israel because of the way it persecutes its indigenous Arab population. This includes Jews, who have suffered genuine anti-Semitism abuse and violence.

Within Israel itself, there is opposition to the official religious policy of the state. There is a sizable minority that would like a total separation between synagogue and state. Other Israelis don’t go this far, but do want Israel to become more secular. And there is tension between Reform Jews, and the Orthodox, who do not regard their theologically more liberal co-religionists to be proper Jews, and may even regard them as anti-Jewish.

But American Conservatives are unable or unwilling to understand Middle Eastern Christians, or why they would not want to support Israel. A few years ago Ted Cruz addressed a meeting of Middle Eastern Christians in America. This went well, until he started urging them to support Israel, at which point he was surprised to find that he was being booed. Part of his speech urged them to support the Israelis, because of the terrible persecution of Jews in the past. But the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected this argument, pointing out that they are being persecuted by the Israelis because of the way Europeans persecuted Jews. Cruz walked off, making comments about anti-Semitism, if I recall correctly. He failed to understand that to his audience, the Israelis were those doing the persecuting.

And this ignorance and the views and political situation of indigenous Middle Eastern Christians seems to be common to elite America. It’s shown by Trump’s decision to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem, which has been supported by the leader of the Democrats in Congress, Chuck Schumer, and Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton. All of whom will stress their identity as Christians when it suits them.

It isn’t just rising Islamism and Muslim intolerance in the Middle East that is a threat to the indigenous Christian communities there. It is also American imperialism, and the country’s alliance with the ethnic and religiously intolerant regimes of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Thus, the media only covers Christian persecution when they can blamed it on Islam, But when it’s awkward for the American, and western military-industrial complex, the media is silent about it.

I Stand with Nigeria and Mali

November 22, 2015

Nigeria-Flag-Wallpaper

The Nigerian Flag

Mali_Flag1

The flag of Mali, drawn as an outline of the country

In addition to the ISIS massacre in France, Islamist terrorists have committed two more atrocities, killing hundreds in Nigeria and Mali. There was a two minute silence for the victims of the Paris attack during the week, with world leaders expressing their horror and outrage. No-one has yet ordered a similar memorial for the victims of the African atrocities, yet their victims are just as worthy of being honoured and commemorated.

And like the attacks in France, this is an attack on civilisation.

West Africa has been the centre of the some of the most ancient and magnificent African civilisations. Nigerians were working iron several centuries before Europeans due to the natural iron bloom that is found in part of the country. Scholars, artists and connoisseurs have been deeply impressed with the naturalistic skill of the sculptures produced by the Nok culture, and later in the 17th century at Ife. The country also has a pattern of earthworks, the remains of cities dating from the seventh century AD, stretching over an area of about 65 square miles/ kilometres. You’ll have to forgive my vagueness about its exact extent. It’s a long time ago since I read the article about it in New Scientist, which was published about ten or fifteen years ago.

Much African history remains obscure, as until the arrival of Islam and exploration and colonisation by the Europeans, most African cultures did not have writing. The exception to this, of course, were Nubia and Abyssinia. Finding archaeological remains of these cultures can also be extremely difficult, as with certain exceptions, like the great Swahili cities in Kenya and the fortress at Zimbabwe, as well as Nubia and Abyssinia, Africans tended to use wood rather than stone for building. The result is that much of the remains of African civilisations has perished over time. Nevertheless, pictures of great African cities produced by European traders and explorers show just how impressive these cities were at their height.

Mali too was the centre of a great African civilisation. It was the centre of the Songhai and Mandingo empires, great Muslim states that became synonymous in West Africa with the religion itself. In one of the local languages, the word for to convert to Islam literally meant, to become a Mandingo. One of the main sources of its wealth was control of the gold supply. The country had so much gold, that when its emperor, Mansa Musa, visited Egypt on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, he distributed so much of it that it caused a recession.

The Egyptian traveller, Ibn Battuta, was also impressed with the country’s Muslim piety and high standard of civilisation, when he visited in the 12th or 13th century. He declared that the Malians would be excellent Muslims, if they did not regard White people with such contempt.

I can also remember being taught at school in Geography class about the vast economic potential of Nigeria. It could be the world’s richest country from its massive oil wealth, if there wasn’t so much corruption.

These were the ancient civilisations, with their own traditions of grandeur, that Boko Haram and the like attacked in the week. Like many people last week, I observed the two minute silence for Paris. I also stand with the people of Nigerian and Mali against the attacks on the lives and dignity of their citizens and visitors, against the butchers and murderers who attacked them. And they’re just two of the many countries throughout the world that have suffered from the attacks of these monsters. The world and its people must stand together against them, and show that despite differences of language, race, culture and religion, we stand for peace. We must never let them and the other preachers of hate win.