28 February 2006

Partial denials

Here we go again.

Following the Danish cartoons, which continue to fan the flames of anti-Western hatred in much of the Muslim world, we return to images of British soldiers beating up unarmed youths in Iraq.

Certain headlines were ludicrously cautious. ­ 'Soldiers apparently beating' said one leading British Daily.

Apparently? We could see the whole sorry business on television for ourselves.

The defence has been that the incident involved only a 'tiny minority' of servicemen but a counter argument is that what has been actually caught on film may represent only a fraction of more widespread abuse. We shall never know.

Meanwhile the Bush Administration has threatened to cut aid to Iraq if the new government includes politicians with a sectarian bias. Isn't it well they are not supplying aid to Northern Ireland?

US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad seems to have a firm hold on the issues. He said that 'sectarian and ethnic conflict is the fundamental problem in Iraq'.

I should have thought that such a profound insight might have been aired before the Coalition crashed into Iraq with a view to converting it overnight into a Western-style democracy. Some slight awareness of decades of tensions and bloody conflicts in the region between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds might have been a useful preparation.

'American taxpayers expect their money to be spent properly,' added the Ambassador.

Good. Give it to them straight. With the war costing them $250 billion already I am sure that remark will go down a storm back home.

The cartoon saga will run and run. Enter Austria into the debate. A court in Vienna sentences the perverse British historian David Irving to three years imprisonment for denying the Holocaust.

Lord Janner, chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust, whose entire family was murdered by the Nazis, said:

'It is the conviction and not the sentence that matters. It sends a clear message to the world that we must not tolerate the denial of the mass murders of the Holocaust.'

I totally agree. But still, it is both difficult and distasteful to off-set or compare one set of gross insults against another and again, much of the Arab and Muslim world will detect double standards.

Modern Israel was created in the land of Canaan by a heroic band of immigrants who, almost literally, fulfilled Isaiah's prophesy that 'the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose'.

But today's Israel is an altogether different society. Perhaps its egalitarian spirit changed when Golda Meir remarked that 'there is no such thing as a Palestinian'.

Does that also rank as a serious, unacceptable, unpardonable denial?

21 February 2006

Religious convictions

Cartoons published in a Danish newspaper several months ago suddenly ignited an explosion of East-West Muslim-Christian misunderstanding, hatred, destruction and violence on a scale seldom, if ever, seen before.

Perhaps those who fail to understand the deep offence caused by the cartoons may be missing a vital point.

The assumption is that Islamic and Christian traditions, though different, are somewhat alike in that each has millions of supporters worldwide. Each tradition believes there is but one God. Logic tells us it must be the same one.

One side reveres the Prophet Mohammed who left behind voluminous written instructions. The other reveres Jesus of Nazareth who, inexplicably, put nothing in writing and whose teachings were left to others to record many years after his death.

The difference in the two beliefs lies in their intensity. A good Muslim prays five times a day and his faith is more central to his view of the world than that of his Christian counterpart – though many will contest that point. Muslim sensitivity to religious insult is understandably much greater, and because many nominal Christians can take a joke against their own beliefs, it does not follow that Muslims should be expected to do the same.

In local equality legislation insult is not measured by intention but by outcome. It is not a defence to claim that a particular nickname, remark or action was not meant to cause offence, or should have been taken as a joke.

The law is clear that the seriousness of the offence is measured by the distress actually caused.

It just so happens that today (21st February) is the anniversary of a day in 1988 when Jimmy Swaggart, America's most iconic Christian television evangelist, had to confess he was a regular visitor to a prostitute.

Forgive me if I am unfazed by so shocking a revelation.

Mr Swaggart had also accused leading evangelist Reverend Martin Gorman of 'immoral dalliances' in 1986.

Gorman launched a $90 million law suit against Swaggart – unsuccessfully – for spreading false rumours; which seemed to suggest that the rumours weren't all that false after all.

All this displeased Republican presidential contender Reverend Pat Robertson. He was the chap who, last year, blamed both the insurgency in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina on actress Ellen Degeneres, 'an avowed lesbian'.

Robertson remains a regular TV preacher but has threatened to sue anyone who calls him a TV evangelist. He prefers to be described as a businessman.

Yes I think I'll go with that.

Please accept my abject apologies if I have offended any particular section of our community.

Astute disciples of this column will know that it's simply not in my nature to poke fun at virtuous people in high places.

14 February 2006

The Tesco factor

No, this is not a rant about value for money, or flavourless carrots, each exactly 20 centimetres long, or the demise of the corner shop.

So let me assure awaiting lawyers that Tesco is a splendid organisation. I should also wish to include Asda, Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury, Lidl, Super-Valu, Dunne’s and Trotter’s Independent Traders.

I’m on about reconciliation. Yitzhak Rabin once said: ‘Peace is not made with friends, but with enemies.’

So what price our ‘Peace Process’ if one lot of local politicians won’t even talk to the other?

There’s actually a lot of help around to encourage us at ground level to forgive and forget and to start building a shared future. Many good sincere groups, hoping for a better world, often apply for grants and are hurt and confused when they are turned down.

Most often it’s because they haven’t recognised that reconciliation is an active process. Or to use the fashionable jargon, it’s got to be ‘pro-active’. It’s got to be central to their thinking, not merely peripheral.

The work of some wonderful vibrant organisation, or the creation of some event, where the doors are open to everybody including ‘the other sort’, is not enough. That’s the Tesco Factor.

Tesco’s doors are open to all classes and creeds. All are welcome to share a positive common experience in a neutral non-sectarian setting. The past doesn’t matter. But Tesco wouldn’t expect a reconciliation grant.

Of course, luring customers to Tesco is easier than encouraging the other sort to join in with, say, a church group. All the more reason for recognising that precise difficulty and making it the prime target.

According to Dr David Stevens ‘if something is believed to be true, it will be true in its consequences’. Perceptions about things have real consequences. Myths have a hold on people. Facts don’t necessarily release that hold.

Neurologists speak of the ‘hemi-inattention’ syndrome in which patients cannot connect left with right. David suggests that we in Northern Ireland suffer from an acute community version.

Under the pressure of conflict we are obsessed with each other but cannot connect. WE are innocent. THEY are guilty. THEY are always getting everything. WE are always treated unfairly.

Then there’s David’s GVE syndrome – Greatest Victim Ever. WE are entitled to most resources. OUR motives are the purest and noblest. Why should we be held accountable for value for money?

And the STO syndrome ­– Sectarian Trade-Off. If YOUR crowd gets something, what about OUR crowd? Every move made to put the past behind or to move towards normality becomes part of STO.

Nelson Mandela said: ‘If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.’

The Tesco factor has to be addressed.

No; Mandela didn’t say that last bit. I did.

07 February 2006

Roughly translated

I've had an opportunity recently to test a new piece of computer software. All terribly exciting.

It promises to scan any piece of writing in English and translate it into French, German, Spanish, Italian or Portuguese. And vice versa (that's Latin).

What a boon to international communication and world peace.

George Bush, once he gets the hang of his own language, will be able to compose billets doux (that's French) to Angela Merkel. Mustn't forget to remind him she's not the President of France but the Chancellor of Germany.

Of course Tony Blair is perfectly au fait with French and he can now write thank-you letters in Italian to Silvio Berlusconi for all those buckshee (that's Hindi) family holidays. Gerry Adams will keep Peter Robinson posted in Ulster Scots. Arnie Schwarzenegger can offload some of his schadenfreude (that's German) on his critics.

I couldn't wait to try out this new gadgetry.

I thought I should translate something into a foreign tongue and then translate it back into English and then take it on a European language tour.

The passage I chose was 'Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow, and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.'

There was a profound historical reason for doing so. The world's first ever recording of the human voice was of Thomas Edison reciting Mary had a little lamb. He might have said something momentous like 'one giant lamb chop for mankind' but he settled for something rather more trivial – which illustrates the point that the media has never fully grasped its technical opportunities.

I can now reveal the results of my tests.

A little lamb, its fleece has Mary white as a snow and had, everywhere that Mary the lamb went to go unconditionally.

A small lamb, his to shave has white Mary as a snow and had been, everywhere that Mary that the lamb went to go absolutely.

A cordero small, its is to be shaved has Mary white as a snow and had been, for all parts that Mary that the cordero went to go certainly.

Agnello should become has small, its Mary white shaved, was when a snow and, for all parts the Mary that the agnello gone to go totally.

It would appear therefore that Mary and/or her lamb got unconditionally shaved during a snow shower, to say nothing of their parts. One can only feel sorry for both of them.

Perhaps this particular software needs just a bit more development before it's adopted by world leaders.

Come to think of it, is there any software these days that does exactly what it says on the tin?