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In this week's magazine | Is Christianity doomed in the Middle East?

A first look at this week's magazine.

23-29 January 2015 issue
Is Christianity doomed in the Middle East?

 

Cover story: “Paradise lost” 
Gerard Russell argues that Islamic extremism, civil war, violence and economics are driving Christians from the Middle East.

 

Plus


Matthew Engel on the art of political betting.

John Simpson on the upcoming Nigerian elections and Boko Haram.

The Diary this week comes from the French ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann, who writes on life after the Paris attacks.

The Politics ColumnGeorge Eaton argues that clear differences exist between Labour and the Tories – despite the claim that they are “the same”

 

Paradise lost: Christianity in the Middle East

Gerard Russell considers the forces behind the decline of Christianity in the Middle East, outlining the extent of that decline over the past 30 years:

In 1987, Christians in Iraq numbered 1.4 million. Since then, the country’s population has doubled but its Christian community has declined to 400,000. Many of these people are now internally displaced because of IS, a Sunni Muslim militant movement that drove them from their homes in August 2014 in its effort to establish an Islamic “caliphate”. The former Christian inhabitants of Mosul and the surrounding towns are now refugees in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region nearby, protected from the summer heat and winter snow only by UN-provided tents erected in local churchyards.

Russell recalls his years working in the Arab world as a diplomat in an attempt to discover the route of the religious shifts in the region, exploring financial, political and social causes, including what the Lebanese-born writer Amin Maalouf calls the “intense religiosity of the urban migrant”:

. . . who sees religion as a way to protect himself and his family from the temptations of urban life. The rise in religiosity in the Muslim world has coincided with mass migration to the cities. It has also coincided with globalisation, which has undermined indigenous Arab cultures, leaving religion as the sole clear criterion of identity and the focus of national pride. Perhaps we should not be surprised to discover how many of IS’s supporters had previously appeared to be thoroughly westernised: this is perhaps the very reason they feel such a passionate need to recapture their sense of being separate and different.

Russell ends on a note of sadness at the thought of Christianity being wiped out of the Middle East entirely, as it would:

. . . lose a part of the heritage and history that all its people, Muslim or Christian, have in common. For the Christian communities have preserved parts of their nations’ heritage: Aramaic in Iraq, pharaonic hymns in Egypt. Their diversity (there are innumerable sects) reflects the region’s history, each sect tracing its origin to the political developments of one era or another. The schools that Christians run in the Middle East, open to Muslims, have educated generations of Arabs.

 

The art of the political wager

Matthew Engel writes that the only certainty about the 2015 election is that it will break all previous betting records. He traces the history of betting through the ages, noting that “the propensity to wager is an innate part of the human condition”:

Men were betting on political outcomes when sport was not organised or regular enough to offer an alternative. Stephen Alford, in his new biography, Edward VI, says that as the boy-king lay dying in 1553, merchants in Antwerp were betting on the disputed succession. In 1743, when George II made the nostalgic and quixotic decision to lead his own troops into battle against the French at Dettingen, it was said to be 4/1 in the London coffee shops against the silly fool getting himself killed. He survived.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a sturdy betting market on presidential elections among Wall Street traders that was well regarded for its accuracy in predicting the result. There was similar activity in the City of London and West End clubs – and with UK bookmakers, whose odds until 1961 were legally available only to the minority able to bet on credit. In the US, bookmaking got itself associated with the Mob and became ever more taboo. In Britain, it was legalised and democratised.

Engel examines the appeal of political betting as an event that is both widely publicised and impossible to predetermine with absolute certainty:

. . . The bookmakers still pursue this kind of business, from customised novelty (will a newborn son play cricket for England?) to reality TV (who will be next to be evicted from Big Brother?), with an eye focused far more on the headline than the bottom line. But no sane bookmaker now accepts serious money on this stuff, or indeed anything where there is a risk of insider trading (this includes betting on the next archbishop of Canterbury). On a general election, however, there is both huge interest and a level playing field: the PM hardly knows more than the rest of us. So it’s a win double for the bookies: acres of column inches and big turnover, too.

He concludes with his fond memories of his own successful political wagers and with excitement for May 2015:

My own moment of glory came in 1990, when I divined that Michael Heseltine would indeed topple Margaret Thatcher but then get punished by being deprived of the prize himself; therefore I knew – just knew – that the answer to the question simply had to be John Major, at 10/1. And I kept betting until Hills told me to get knotted.

I am relishing the 2015 election first and foremost because I care about my country and want it to be run by politicians who share my vision of its future; second, because, for a journalist, it will be fascinating to write about; and third, because I hope that I might just have another moment of blinding insight to match the one I had 25 years ago. Which may be lucrative in a medium-sized way – and gloriously satisfying.

 

Notebook: Nigeria’s election is near, so why is no one asking the candidates how they would Bring Back Our Girls?

Ahead of the Nigerian elections, John Simpson asks why seemingly nothing is being done to rescue the schoolgirls captured by Boko Haram:

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t seem to have heard the slogan “Bring Back Our Girls” much recently. Last April, if you recall, it was everywhere. Michelle Obama, wearing an appropriately solemn face, held up a placard bearing those words. The CNN news anchor Christiane Amanpour thrust a similar placard into the hands of a startled David Cameron live on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show and he obediently said he agreed. A variety of C-listers queued up to join a campaign that looked wholesome and was surely liable to succeed.

But absolutely nothing happened. Now, as the presidential election in Nigeria draws near, the kidnapped schoolgirls from the north-eastern town of Chibok scarcely get a mention, not even in Nigeria. Maybe it’s understandable, because it doesn’t look as though they will ever be released. Abubakar Shekau, the wild-eyed leader of Boko Haram, the ferocious group that captured them, dished them out to his fighters as sex slaves and many are now said to be pregnant. The great majority of the girls, being Christians, have been forcibly converted to Islam. A few have managed to escape but unknown hundreds of girls from other towns in Nigeria’s north-east have since been kidnapped as well.

He explores the country’s struggle with Boko Haram over the past year and asks why not only the major presidential candidates but western political figures, too, are silent about the missing schoolgirls:

In this vast, seething, tumultuous country of 174 million, people have plenty of other things to worry about than the fate of a few hundred girls. So do Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari. That, in its way, is understandable.

But what about all those worthy people such as Michelle Obama, who were so worked up about the fate of the girls only a few months ago? Should they meekly let them pass out of the world’s consciousness quite so easily?

 

The Diary: Sylvie Bermann, the French ambassador to the UK, on life after the Paris attacks

The Diary this week comes from the French ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann, who looks back on the Paris attacks:

The new year began with unthinkable horror. On Wednesday 7 January, two brothers armed with Kalashnikovs stormed into the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people. In the two nightmare days that followed, a policewoman was shot dead at work and four hostages were killed at a kosher supermarket. France was in shock. France mourned its dead.

These attacks were cowardly, barbaric acts of violence. They have been condemned around the world. They have also sparked uplifting displays of solidarity between people of different faiths and nationalities, culminating on Sunday 11 January when four million people marched together on the streets of France. Difficulties lie ahead, but the unity we’ve seen in the wake of the Paris attacks is our most powerful weapon in dealing with them.

Bermann also looks to the future, and the possibility for France to move beyond this month’s atrocities:

Amid the sadness, 2015 is also a year for hope. One of our biggest focuses will be achieving a global agreement on climate change at the UN climate conference taking place in Paris at the end of the year. Last November’s agreement between China and the US on carbon cuts was an encouraging step on the road to Paris 2015. This is a major moment for our planet and for the whole of humanity, and it’s an opportunity we mustn’t waste. Let’s make sure this year ends on a more positive note than it began!

 

The Politics Column: George Eaton writes that despite the cries of “They’re all the same!” there are clear differences between Labour and the Tories

The NS political editor, George Eaton, argues that although Ukip, the SNP and the Green Party seem convinced that “the problem with  Labour and the Conservatives is how alike they are”, the differences between them today are vast:

Around 2006 and 2007, the ideological terrain on which Labour and the Tories fought was microscopically small . . . [But] it was the crash that brought this era to a close. By ending the illusion of permanent growth, it resurrected the distributional questions rendered irrelevant by the boom. As a result of the shrinking economy, it was no longer possible for Labour and the Conservatives to pledge to avoid both tax rises and spending cuts: choices had to be made.

The two parties have made different ones ever since.

Eaton considers these notable differences and the dangers of ignoring them:

With so few switching between the big two, Labour and the Tories are locked in comparable struggles to squeeze their smaller opponents. But just as the causes of their rise are not short-term, so the solutions will not be either. As one Scottish Labour MP told me in the case of the SNP: “Our biggest opponent is time.” The danger is that an inconclusive election result, produced by a voting system incapable of reflecting individual preferences, only widens the gulf between Westminster and the rest.

 

Plus

Helen Lewis interviews Alex Garland, the writer and director of Ex Machina.

David Reynolds on the return of big history.

Michael Brooks: could ketamine stop suicides?

The Webb Trust Essay: the 2014 winner, Adam Ludlow, asks how business can reduce poverty.

Philip Maughan explores E M Forster’s “unfilmable” work.

Robert Webb on the posthumously published memoir by Kate Gross.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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