Letter From London: Holy Smoke

Funeral home, Westminster. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Every day I pass our local undertakers. There is usually an example headstone in the window. It is always nameless. With nothing written or engraved upon it yet, I always imagine it as a piece of conceptual art. Occasionally I might see a small crowd gather outside the building. This is before a long slow drive to a funeral. Nervous glances catch the eye. A cloud of uncertainty hovers above everyone. Last week, I passed the address again. The place was empty. The business had vanished. Not even a headstone in the window. It was as if it had never been there in the first place. It was also as though eternal life had now been assured forever.

If you like statistics, London is 46% Christian, 15% Muslim, 5% Hindu, 1.8% Jewish, 1.5% Sikh, and 1% Buddhist, though one in five Londoners have no religion at all. Thanks to the combination of three major Abrahamic religions observed last week, we have had Christian friends here honouring Easter, Muslim friends fasting from dawn to sunset during Ramadan, Jewish friends commemorating the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery with Passover, and non-believers dancing with smiles on their faces all weekend long. Not that I am — outside of the normal realms of courtesy — aware of the intricacies of either faiths or non-faiths. Nor to be fair is there much in the way of civic life and civil society in this fine city actively requiring creed or observance. Besides, religions alone do not a spiritual dimension make — I have known atheists with inordinate amounts of faith in people — but I do consider respect for other people’s religions essential.

Right now, discussions are taking place over getting AI to answer people’s questions on religion. One is even tempted to say that the fact we are not able to do so ourselves speaks volumes. Many will have seen the AI photograph of the Pope in a gleaming white puffer jacket. Once people twigged the image was fake, it was dismissed as modern-day profanity. The irony of course is that with one visual white lie, so to speak, more bidding was done for Catholicism over Easter than perhaps any of the multi-translated papal messages from the central balcony of St Peter’s Basilica. The fact an unusually dapper and suddenly hip 86-year-old was seen as head of the Vatican was very popular indeed among the young, though people of all ages were taken in by it. Meanwhile, the Buddhist equivalent of the Pope — Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama — had to say sorry last week for playfully asking a young Indian boy in public to suck his tongue. This is a man however who once said it was very rare or almost impossible that an event can be negative from all points of view. In the end, religion is not an easy subject to explain.

Given that each religion or faith bears an essentially charitable modus operandi, it should really be a painless exercise writing about it — beyond question a welcome break from the blood and guts of war. Good-mouthing was certainly what I had in mind last week when setting out on this task. But before long there was much kicking and rearing in the headlights. Not just reverential chanting could be heard. The events in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque — the most holy Muslim site in Jerusalem — were particularly troubling. We all know different waves of faith break on the sands of the Middle East. It is what makes it so unique. We know true rhythms of prayer can still be evoked there. But the sight of Israeli police attacking howling worshippers with batons was not a good look.

I know only two London-based experts on religion, including one person I have mentioned here before who writes a weekly column on the world’s faiths. The other is Gerard Russell whose book ‘Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms’ began with a 2006 phone call from the high priest of the Mandaeans, a Gnostic sect of Iraq and south-western Iran. (The book also covers the Ezidis, Zoroastrians, Druze, Samaritans, Copts, and Kalasha.) The Mandaeans were once protected by Saddam Hussein but soon became victims of the American invasion. (As Phyllis Bennis wrote recently on Iraq in CounterPunch: ‘The war gave rise to religious and ethnic divides, created unfathomable levels of corruption, left a legacy of sectarian militias and terrorist organizations including ISIS.’) I first met Gerard in Kabul where he was working as a diplomat. A few years later we discussed in vague terms over tea in central London the idea of making a film on minority religions, in which we would take a camera to fascinating if vulnerable people and places. It never happened but I do remember thinking at the time it was a mixture of colonialism’s crudely insisted borders and all those parallel vacuums created by declining communism, more occupation, and nationalism, that had pretty much conspired against everybody.

It felt especially bittersweet therefore last week also remembering while watching the news that religion itself has the power to unify as well as to divide. To a clumsy layperson such as myself, this is at the heart of what still seems like such a seriously wasted opportunity, and I am not talking here about Tony Blair’s foundation providing what it calls ‘the practical support required to help prevent religious prejudice, conflict and extremism’. I mean simply that all men and women of peace inhabiting the religions of the world surely have it within themselves to unify, to create some kind of pluralistic ceasefire. You may say I’m a dreamer.

Or is this, more controversially, what already lies behind what we are seeing today between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia? (The conflict in Yemen has always been a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia and already since this new accord we have a major prisoner swap between the two warring sides in Yemen.) Though authored by China, some see it as an important step in the right direction, certainly as far as stability in the Middle East goes. Others will of course see it as proof of an abruptly meddling or rutting China, the building bricks of a new anti-Western world order — something that shuts out the United States from what is effectively new zonal positioning. Despite my relative ignorance on what has just happened, I anticipate no real sign of dwindling or disappearing American influence. A readjustment, yes, but not a vanishing act. That said, other countries in the region have Shia or Sunni majorities, and one or two must be considering following suit, creating all kinds of unexpected harmonies. When discussing the Middle East, we must remember we are talking here about a land mass incorporating south-western Asia and Northern Africa, all the way from the blue Mediterranean to the saltwater ports of Pakistan, not forgetting the all-important Arabian peninsula. It is hardly a region of no consequence. Nor, alas, are these truly tranquil sands forming just yet.

The latest police raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque created such a backlash, including rocket attacks from Gaza and southern Lebanon, that some people wondered if this was the purpose of the exercise in the first place. I must admit, the sight of cowering worshippers was extremely upsetting. Even to people with no religious affiliation, it felt gross and macabre. One can only imagine how it must have felt for those trapped inside. Just as recent history has been allowed to obscure the fact that Islam has a long-established history of sympathy of minorities, the present right-wing Israeli government is an unfair portrayal of Judaism’s own history of sufferance, which famously goes back all the way to the Bronze Age in the Middle East. Interestingly, Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once said the road to the sacred leads through the secular.

In my continued hunt, I came across other reports last week of Hindu lynchings of Muslims in India, and in Canada news of a Hindu supremacist ripping up a copy of the Koran while attempting to run over people at a mosque. There were also reports of Hindus in India being met with ‘synchronised’ attacks by Muslims, including during the recent Ram Navami celebration. In Afghanistan last week, in a Taliban-led Afghan government operation in the country’s south-west, two Islamic State (IS) fighters were reported as killed and a third taken into custody. Known regionally as the Islamic State-Khorasan, attacks by this group on Afghanistan’s Shi’ite minority are on the rise. Of course, religious attacks can also take place within Christian groups such as in Nottinghamshire in England following an Easter Sunday sermon when one Christian worshipper stabbed another outside the church. As a matter of fact, religion last week felt like the last place on earth to find peace, and I was remembering Napoleon’s description of it as being what keeps the poor from murdering the rich. It is even to be found in the present resurfacing of tensions last week between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with Azerbaijan of course largely Muslim and Armenia largely Christian. As for religious laws between China and Taiwan, which differ greatly, even these have increased of late. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China wants to return to a more intertwined political and religious authority, perhaps not unlike its ambitions with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Predictably, Taiwan still wants even greater separation. When in 1949 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took control in Beijing, a lot of persecuted Christians, along with fleeing nationalists, were given exile status in Taiwan.

In Eastern Ukraine, meanwhile, Russians last week were accused of conducting religious persecutions. Since the full-scale invasion of February 2022, Russians and their local authorities in Ukraine have been responsible for at least 76 recorded acts of religious persecution. Since the beginning of this year, according to Ukrainska Pravda, a digital media site launched by a later assassinated journalist, 63 religious organisations had abandoned the Russian-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), teaming up instead with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). This means that since the start of the full-scale invasion, 277 religious communities in total have reportedly joined the OCU. Some of this manoeuvring we can be sure was expedient, not just gut-wrenchingly miserable, but even from London we can feel only its wretchedness. Not so long ago some of these people were actually worshipping together, bowing as one for peace in the world. They will even have heard, during silent prayer, each other’s breathing. As of last week, however, 805 Ukrainian churches were still connected to the Moscow Patriarchate, reminding people over here in London of just how close these two warring sides remain, and how caught up we have become in what still feels like a murderous family set-to. I won’t even begin to unpack investigative reporter Seymour Hersh’s latest investigations which claim to show hundreds of millions of dollars of corruption on the part of Ukraine with gifted western money even paying for fuel from Russia.

Closer to home, with continued events around the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, President Biden visited the Knock Shrine, a famous Irish pilgrimage site visited in the past by Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis, and Mother Teresa. But it was while he was in Belfast cheerfully posing beside alleged IRA member and former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams that observers were obliged to remember events such as the systematic elimination by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) of ordinary Catholic working people whom the UDA innocently murdered in their homes or workplaces for simply being Catholic. Or the Kingsmill massacre committed by the Provisional IRA during a supposed ceasefire on 5th January 1976 close to Whitecross village in south County Armagh, when a minibus with eleven Protestant workmen was stopped and the men all taken out and lined up and shot. Fates such as these ensure good men and women take very seriously indeed the Good Friday Agreement, despite empty-headed attempts by some to turn it into a political football.

Finally, rightly or wrongly the late philosopher Bertrand Russell believed that religion was a left-over from the infancy of our intelligence: ‘It will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines.’ I’m still baffled how the local undertakers went out of business, though.

Peter Bach lives in London.