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Press: New Statesman dives deep into religious matters

06 April 2023


THE NEW STATESMAN had three thoughtful pieces on religion in its Easter issue, which strengthens my argument that the subject is creeping back from the margins of the mainstream print media.

The last shall be first; so, reading the magazine backwards, we come to the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams, reviewing a history of humanism: Humanly Possible (Chatto & Windus), by Sarah Bakewell. This contains one glorious and generous sentence for the commonplace book: “We have to see and hear ourselves as strange before we can properly come to be at home with ourselves, and art presents us with that strangeness — with what we are without knowing it. It captures both our squalor and our radiance — ‘majesty’ — in all the ways Bakewell celebrates and more.”

I do like that. Anyone can say — and sometimes see — that good art makes the world much stranger. But that it makes us stranger to ourselves is a rarer and so more valuable insight.

I DON’T think you could get further from Lord Williams than the barber down the road from me. This is not a tonsorial comment, but one about access to information. To judge from his monologues, the barber has never read a book for pleasure in his life. His knowledge of the world comes from YouTube.

In 2016, he solemnly explained that he was worried about Hillary Clinton’s emails. His views on Muslims, also, can be predicted. He is a constant reminder to me that there is always a counter-narrative bubbling under the surface of respectable, informed opinion, and that there are tens of millions of people who will always believe that, if someone tells them that the world is complicated, this can only be to confuse them. For all but a tiny, unworldly minority, the disinterested pleasure of intellectual puzzles cannot possibly compare with the self-interested pleasure of seeing through the snares of your enemies.

This is the background to an enormous amount of intercommunal tension — and, of course, to most popular journalism. One of the things that casual readers want most from any story is to be told who is the villain.

And so to the second New Statesman piece — a deep dive by Harry Lambert on the scandal last month of a copy of the Qur’an being scuffed about in a school playground in Wakefield. Four boys, one of them autistic, were suspended from the school as a result. This led, ultimately, to a piece in The Times by the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, denouncing as a “sharia tribunal” the meeting called in a local mosque to discuss the affair.

According to Lambert, who had despoiled the purity of his opinions by travelling to Wakefield and talking to everyone involved who was prepared to talk to him, this was all nonsense. “This is what really happened,” he writes. “On Wednesday 22 February, the Koran was brought into school by the mother’s son — a white British boy — as a dare set by other boys after he lost a video game.

“The Koran was passed around at school and ended up being damaged by others. That was disrespectful, but it was a school matter that did not need to take on any wider meaning. It should never have left the school gates. It did so not because of the actions of the mosque, but because the incident was mishandled by the school.

“The next morning, on Thursday 23 February, the school, eager to show that it was taking what happened seriously, held an assembly during which the boys were named. ‘Awful things’ had been done to the Koran, it was said. This comment proved inflammatory. This vague claim spread online, setting fire to unfounded rumours.”

The meeting at the mosque, he writes, had been called to defuse tensions. It was not all-male, and the police were present, too. But this did not stop London opinionators from joining in the fun from their safe distance, and treating the video as if it gave the whole picture.

Like the Ellie Williams case — when a white woman, later jailed for eight years for perverting the course of justice, persuaded a whole town that she was the victim of Muslim sexual abuse, because everyone knows that’s the sort of thing that happens, even when it hasn’t happened — the Wakefield story shows what voracious stories lurk in the popular imagination. Ms Braverman is trying to ride these sharklike things to power.

ONE hint of why came from the third NS Easter piece on religion — a largely reported account of African Christianity in south London, “the greatest concentration of African Christianity outside Africa”, by Tomiwa Owolade. He caught nicely a paradox that the papers have not yet discovered: that the future of Christianity in this country does depend largely on immigration, but that the views of these immigrants on social matters are very largely shared with those voters who most fear and distrust immigrants.

London is both one of the most multicultural cities in Britain, and one of the most socially conservative. If liberal Christianity is dying, it is largely because liberal Christians are dying off, too. If the next Conservative leadership contest is fought between Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch, you’ll have to laugh.

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