This morning, I was invited onto BBC Ulster’s Sunday Sequence programme to discuss my response as a Christian pacifist to the situation in northern Iraq. Our discussion followed headlines reporting that English church leaders have criticised the UK government’s response to Islamic extremism.
The story appears in more detail on the front page of today’s Observer, which declares that the Church of England has launched a “bitter attack” on the UK government’s Middle East policy. The “attack” consists of a letter to David Cameron from the Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines, backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.
I don’t object to bishops criticising the government; I wish they would do it more often. However, this “attack” – which is really more of a polite criticism – is far too soft on the government, making no mention of the militarism and commercial exploitation at the hear of UK foreign policy.
Baines’ letter suggests that UK foreign policy is not “coherent”. In contrast, I believe it is fairly consistent – and morally wrong.
On one issue, I applaud Nick Baines’ intervention. The letter raises vital questions about asylum, saying:
“As yet, there appears to have been no response to pleas for asylum provision to be made for those Christians (and other minorities) needing sanctuary from Iraq in the UK. I recognise that we do not wish to encourage Christians or other displaced and suffering people to leave their homeland – the consequences for those cultures and nations would be extremely detrimental at every level – but for some of them this will be the only recourse.”
The bishop is quite right to push the government on the question of asylum. There are several right-wing columnists who want to bomb Iraq, supposedly out of concern for the plight of Yazidis and Christians. I have no doubt that many of them would show far less concern about these people’s plight if they were to turn up claiming asylum in the UK.
If Baines had confined his letter to the asylum issue, it would be stronger and the press reports would be focusing on it. But his letter includes comments on the Middle East generally, as well as UK government policy on “Islamic extremism”. Predictably, much of the media have picked up on these questions rather than on asylum. Baines’ comments on these issues may well do more harm than good.
“We do not seem to have a coherent or comprehensive approach to Islamist extremism as it is developing across the globe. Islamic State, Boko Haram and other groups represent particular manifestations of a global phenomenon.”
In this passage, “we” appears to mean the UK (in effect, the UK government). The examples that Baines gives are both manifestations of Islamic extremism. Unfortunately, talk of this “developing across the globe” plays down the many differences between types of extremism and the variety of contexts that have given rise to them. It also implies that Islamic extremists are somehow more of a problem than other violent and terrorist groups – from the Israeli government carrying out massacres in Gaza to Buddhist extremists burning mosques and churches in Sri Lanka.
The bishop unfortunately writes about Christians in an equally unhelpful way:
“The focus by both politicians and media on the plight of the Yezidis has been notable and admirable. However, there has been increasing silence about the plight of tens of thousands of Christians who have been displaced, driven from cities and homelands, and who face a bleak future. Despite appalling persecution, they seem to have fallen from consciousness, and I wonder why. Does your Government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others?”
This, frankly, sounds petty. Baines is right to speak up for the plight of persecuted people and we all naturally tend to be more worried about the suffering of people with whom we can identify. But these comments add to the impression that Christians should be more worried about the persecution of other Christians than about the persecution of Yazidis, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Jews, atheists or anyone else. Let’s challenge persecution because it is wrong and because we are called to love all our neighbours as ourselves. Let’s not sound as if we think the rights of Christians matter more than the rights of others.
Early on in his letter, Baines says that “it is not clear what our broader global strategy is – particularly insofar as the military, political, economic and humanitarian demands interconnect”.
Again, the use of “our” identifies Baines – and by extension the rest of the Church and the British population – with Cameron’s government. Cameron’s foreign policy is, if not clear, then at least more coherent than the bishop suggests. It may seem inconsistent for politicians to wring their hands about Islamic extremists in Nigeria while preparing to bomb Islamic extremists in Iraq. It may appear absurd for Philip Hammond to condemn Russia for arming separatists in Ukraine while happily selling weapons to Israel, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
But while ministers’ words are inconsistent, their actions are not. The government’s foreign policy is based on the commercial and strategic interests of those who hold power in the UK and the class that they represent. This is a government thoroughly committed to promoting the concerns of the super-rich. This has after all the basic purpose of the Tory Party throughout its existence. While I’m sure that some ministers believe that they are acting out of humanitarian concern, their domestic policy has involved rapid redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. We cannot expect their foreign policy to be any more ethical.
The problem is not that UK government policy is incoherent. The problem is that it is wrong. It makes sense within the context of the values by which Cameron and his cronies abide. These are the same repugnant values of militarism and colonialism that led Cameron to back Blair in invading Iraq, triggering a downward spiral to sectarian civil war.
In his letter, Nick Baines follows the common practice of using the words “we” and “our” when he really means the UK government and its armed forces. This is unhelpful, as it implies that nationality is the primary aspect of our identity and that we are basically on the same side as those who hold power.
As Christians, our loyalty is to the Kingdom of God. I owe no more loyalty to David Cameron’s government than I do to ISIS.