Is Christianity being marginalised?

While stories of marginalised Christians continue to make headlines, Jonathan Bartley suggests the m

Hardly a month seems to go by these days without a high profile story in the newspapers concerning another Christian who is feeling discriminated against or claims by church leaders that Christianity is being ‘marginalised.'

In December it was local authorities re-branding the Christmas season ‘Winterval,' schools failing to stage traditional nativity plays, as well as conspiratorial tales about the Post Office issuing a secret memo (of which no one yet seems to have found a copy) telling its workers not to sell religiously themed stamps. One MP even raised the spectre of ‘Christianophobia’ in a debate in the House of Commons.

I was asked to come on Radio 4’s Sunday Programme to discuss the idea with Mark Pritchard, the Tory in question, and dispute his claims. However I was subsequently called by the producer to say that the MP had refused to debate with me. Apparently Pritchard doesn’t believe that Christians should be seen to disagree publicly. (Treating me less favourably because of my faith, I suggested mischievously!)

But the MP was quite prepared to publicly criticise the Archbishop of Canterbury over his recent Sharia comments - so it seems there must have been another reason. One possibility is that the claims being made simply don’t stand up to serious scrutiny.

It is not well known, but it is often the same group of people who fuel the scare stories of Christian marginalisation that appear in the papers. These usual suspects - a small collection of lobby groups -- are actively seeking out potential cases of discrimination which they can then publicise, make a political campaign of, or pursue in the courts. They are also drawing advice and training from the US, where similar strategies have been pursued.

What is behind their zeal? Their agenda is a desperate attempt to win back, or at least try to maintain, many of the special privileges and exemptions that Christianity has previously enjoyed, but which society is no longer willing to grant. Their argument is that since Britain is a Christian country, their faith, and its adherents, should have special recognition and dispensation.

But they are faced with an internal contradiction which virtually guarantees their failure - and helps to explain why their have had so little success. On the one hand they advance their arguments by citing the 70% of the country which identified with Christianity at the last census. This majority position, they argue, means that Christianity should still be given pride of place. However in the next breath, they plead Christians as a vulnerable and persecuted minority in need of special protections - which entirely undermines their case.

Their dilemma will not be resolved anytime soon. But this won’t end the religious conviction that drives them. Indeed, every failure only serves to reinforce their conviction that Christians are being marginalised and sidelined, and that they must fight even harder.

So prepare for a lot more of the same in the months to come – but don’t be afraid to treat the headlines with the scepticism they deserve.

Jonathan Bartley is co-director of the thinktank Ekklesia. He lives in Streatham in South London, and when he not discussing religion and politics, he plays in the blues band the mustangs
Photo: Getty Images
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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.