THE TABLET THE I NTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY
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HOPES AND FEARS OF ARAB SPRING
Anyone trying to predict last New Year which stories would dominate the headlines in 2011 would have missed what turned out to be the most significant. A few days into January, a Tunisian fruit seller set light to himself to object to the official corruption and bullying from which he had suffered. He ignited a protest which spread across the Arab world, toppling despots in his own country, Egypt and Libya and destabilising many of the rest. The biggest conflagration so far, still ongoing, has happened in Syria. It is being watched nervously from neighbouring Iraq, whose own stability, with the departure of the last American and British occupying troops, still seems precarious.
Even if upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa had been predicted, most observers in the West would have expected it to involve a challenge to the status quo by fundamentalist Islamic movements, not the demand for more liberal values like democracy and human rights which was what actually emerged. The Syrians may prefer to call the Arab Spring a long hot Arab summer. Fighting between rebel groups and the Syrian army, loosely directed by the regime headed by President Bashar al-Assad, reached such a level of human-rights abuses that the Arab League felt obliged to intervene to separate the two sides, and the League’s observers have now begun their difficult task.
The Syrian conflict is more complex than in, say, Libya, which is why external military intervention has never seemed practicable. There are religious and ethnic tensions between the regime, which is Shia-dominated and leans towards Iran, and the Sunni majority, which has nurtured a long tradition of polit-
ical dissent and suffered periodic repression as a result. The Christian minority, 10 per cent, is mainly Greek Orthodox and has enjoyed the friendly embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church; no doubt Pope Benedict had the Catholic minoritywithin-the-minority in particular in mind when he called for an end to Syrian bloodshed in his annual Christmas message.
Russia has been a friend of the Syrian Ba’athist regime and in the past has condemned the rebels as gangsters. There are signs of a change of Russian policy as a result of the overwhelming evidence of human-rights abuses, however, and because Syria is otherwise so friendless, this could be all it takes to force President Assad to leave office. The most likely alternative seems to be civil war, Sunni versus Shia, which could become a new source of instability across the region. With Russia backing the regime and the West sympathetic to its opponents, this could even become an international great-power confrontation by proxy, as in the Spanish Civil War.
Israel has played almost no part in the unfolding story of the Arab Spring. With Arab attention diverted elsewhere, the Arab-Israel conflict over Palestine has remained almost static in 2011. If the ruling Shia clique in Syria gave way to a Sunni-dominated government, this might be good news for Israel as it would weaken Iranian influence. But a new democratically-based Damascus government, closer to the prejudices of the Arab street, could just as well take a hard line against Israel. Nevertheless, Israel cannot complain – by its settlements policy and treatment of Palestinians generally, it has shut the door too often on opportunities for peace.
TRUTH UNTO POWER
The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christmas sermon was an excursion into the minefield where religion and politics overlap. Dr Rowan Williams caught the headlines with his critique of the way British society was developing, and he was promptly told by his political critics to mind his own business. But he had staked out his theological pitch to give them his answer in advance. In its collective worship, exemplified by the Book of Common Prayer, the Church of England undertook an examination of conscience on behalf of the whole of society. The Anglican prayer book, he continued, spoke of “binding together our obligations to God and to one another, in a dense interweaving of love and duty joyfully performed”.
But if this dense interweaving is being pulled apart, then the problems facing society are just as much spiritual and moral as they are political and economic. “Those who prayed the prayer book, remember, included those who abolished the slave trade and put an end to child labour, because of what they had learned in this book and in their Bibles about the honour of God and of God’s children,” he said.
The archbishop contrasted that with the present day, when “the picture is of atoms spinning apart in the dark”, as when an urban rioter burned down a small shop that served his community, or a speculator turned his back on the question of “who bears the ultimate cost for his acquisitive adventures in the virtual reality of today's financial world”. Dr Williams’ judgement that “bonds have been broken, trust abused and lost” is just as much an indictment of past governments as of this one.
It is also a judgement on the decline in religious belief and observance. The Church of England can no longer perform its unifying role so effectively, and secular institutions and ideas have failed to provide an alternative basis for social cohesion. For a time, the post-war welfare state seemed to provide a model of a Christian society based on solidarity. But the recent economic downturn, coinciding with the very atomised individualism of which the archbishop was complaining, has weakened the consensus on which it relied.
The Government’s current wave of welfare reforms, some of which are still weaving their contentious way through Parliament, also suggest a weakening of social solidarity. The growing gap between those with wealth and those without, especially the unemployed – the theme of Christmas homilies and New Year messages from other prominent churchmen this year, including Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow and Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds – indicates a similar trend. While such speakers, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, may offer the consolations of religion to those in distress, they insist that social justice and the advancement of integral human development is a spiritual as well as a political goal, one they are not at liberty to set aside. Even before the birth of Jesus, his mother described God’s purposes in unmistakably political terms: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” With such a manifesto, the Christian faith cannot be other than political.
2 | THE TABLET | 31 December 2011 COLUMNS
7 CHRISTOPHER JAMISON
‘If consumerism is the native culture, church leaders condemn it at their peril’
1 7 SARA MAITLAND
‘We need to work on Christmastide joy as much as we do on Friday fasting’
1 9 CHRISTOPHER HOWSE’S
PRESSWATCH ‘The prince’s sickness gave an unintended angle to the Queen’s Christmas message’
2 0 PARISH PRACTICE 2 1 NOTEBOOK 2 2 L ETTERS 2 3 THE L I V I NG S P I R I T 2 4 PUZZLES
2 5 R I CHARD OWEN
Il Duce and His Women: Mussolini’s rise to power Roberto Olla
AYLA L E P I NE Downside Abbey: an architectural history Dom Aidan Bellenger (ed.)
LYNN ROBERTS Lazarus Is Dead Richard Beard
2 8 F EATURE
Mark Lawson Theatrical hits of 2011
ROCK AND POP Brian Morton Emeli Sandé
C I NEMA Francine Stock The Artist
GALLERIES Polly Chiapetta Selected exhibitions for 2012
3 1 DECEMBER 2 0 1 1
4 Conclave contenders Robert Mickens
As talk in Rome turns to a potential successor to Pope Benedict, our correspondent offers an insider’s guide to those considered papabile 6 Before the iceberg Sarah Mac Donald
Selections from an extraordinary archive of photographs taken on board RMS Titanic by a young Jesuit priest have been republished
■ COVER STORY: THE YEAR AHEAD
8 The Second Vatican Council: 50 years on John Wilkins
How much of the radicalism of the event survives today? 9 The economy William Keegan
The spectre of the euro crisis is set to haunt UK growth in 2012 1 0 Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee Stephen Bates
How a strong personal faith has infused the Queen’s 60-year reign 1 2 Charles Dickens D.J. Taylor
The bicentennial of his birth is a chance to celebrate the great writer
1 2 The Olympic Games Vladimir Felzmann
Sport reveals the intensity of humanity’s desire for transcendence 1 3 Search for a new Chief Rabbi Stephen Pollard
With Lord Sacks stepping down in 2013, the hunt begins for his successor 1 4 Sistine Chapel ceiling Laura Gascoigne
The 500th anniversary of the creation of Michelangelo’s masterpiece 1 5 The environment Mary Colwell
Creation must be protected for its own sake, as well as ours 1 6 After Berlusconi Ivor Roberts
In the midst of Italy’s chaos there is hope for the future
1 8 Unconscionable and unjustifiable Tina Beattie
With the notion of a “just war” becoming increasingly untenable, is it time to embrace the more pacifist ethos of Gaudium et Spes?
3 2 THE CHURCH I N THE WORLD
Islamists wreak Christmas carnage 3 6 NEWS FROM BRITAIN AND I RELAND
Bishops warn of polarised society
COVER ILLUSTRATION: NERUUU
31 December 2011 | THE TABLET | 3