Concerns of the ummah

Some faiths are global. Nation states must come to terms with this.

In the first part of Peter Taylor's fascinating new BBC 2 series, Generation Jihad, we heard, time and again, young British Muslims voicing their concern and outrage over attacks on Palestine and the military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I'm sure that at least some viewers were thinking: why should Britons, UK passport-holders, people born and brought up here, feel quite so strongly about what happens in countries thousands of miles away?

Why should they feel that the death and destruction visited upon Palestinians, Afghans and Iraqis are also attacks on them? Shouldn't they be British, and espouse "British" values, first and foremost?

I can quite see why this is hard to understand for secularists, used to -- and insistent upon -- the church-state divide that characterises most European nations, and which continues in the supranational institution of the EU. I can also see why it is hard to understand for many Protestants, especially those belonging to churches that specifically describe themselves as being national sects -- the Church of England, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, etc.

What they fail to see, because it is not emphasised with the same force in their belief systems, whether religious or not, is the truly universal nature of other faiths, membership of which binds their adherents from different countries and continents together in a way that secular nationalism and Protestantism do not.

As the Islamic scholar and former Malaysian prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi put it in a speech to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies in 2004:

What the west needs to learn about the Muslim world . . . is that Muslims see themselves as a collective ummah. Unlike [with] western individualism, Muslims have a strong sense of fraternity as a community of believers.

This means empathy. This is why Muslims who are not affected by poverty or who have nothing to do with Palestine feel so strongly about this issue. This is why without addressing and identifying the root causes of terrorism the war against terror will not succeed.

You can find the full text here (and I would advise anyone interested in learning about a less confrontational view of Islam to do so. Badawi was a weak and ineffectual PM, but very wise when it came to how religion and modernity can coexist).

It could also be added that awareness of the ummah has been enormously heightened in the past few decades, not least by the mass spread of all forms of communication.

This is why, for instance, as the US senator Christopher Bond points out in his new book, The Next Front: South-east Asia and the Road to Global Peace with Islam, Muslims in the southern Philippines can watch Israel's attacks on Gaza and Lebanon and feel affected, and angered, in a way they did not in the years before even the poorest households had access to a television set. And there, this knowledge of the suffering of fellow Muslims has had the unfortunate consequence of allowing some to turn a long and legitimate struggle for autonomy within, if not outright independence from, a Philippine nation, into part of a wider religious war.

It is no use railing against this sense of connectedness. It is simply there. For me, brought up in one of the other global faiths, Roman Catholicism, it is far from alien.

Even though I lapsed a long time ago, I still feel a connection with Catholics around the world, and have always known that I could walk into a Catholic cathedral in any country and feel at home. Culturally, it is part of my DNA. It is also why, when politicians such as Ruth Kelly are criticised essentially for being religious -- her links to Opus Dei were regarded as being particularly suspect -- I can't help feeling at least a twinge of sympathy.

For those who demand that UK-born Muslims, or Catholic ministers like Kelly, sign up to a secular interpretation of Britishness and consign their embarrassing beliefs to some hidden place where they need not intrude into the political sphere are asking the impossible.

Nearly everyone agrees that human rights are universal. Well, some faiths are truly global, too, and have existed and will continue to exist while nations and empires rise and fall. Denying this is useless. Understanding this, and allowing for this, would be better.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit