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Wednesday, 4 April 2012

On Demagogues and 'God': some Pesach thoughts

He thought people had witnessed “something miraculous” – in the biblical sense of the word. “As a religious man I have to believe that there is some divine intervention in this...something sacred. Justice has been done.”

No, not Moses after the exodus from Egypt, standing exhausted on the far shore of the Sea of Reeds in awe at how events had unfolded, some combination of nature and the historical moment that would enter a people’s collective memory to become a legend told and re-told, elaborated upon, mythologised over the generations, each telling a re-collection of fragments of memory, each telling an elaboration, each telling adding weight and significance to that initial sense of freedom, freedom gained who knows how? who knows why? but freedom gained - and awaiting its narrators, its storytellers, its making-sense-of-it-all mythographers and poets...

No, this was Friday March 30th, in the early hours of the morning at the prosaic Richard Dunn Sports Centre in Bradford - and God’s intervention is claimed with a raucous and aggressive immediacy: “All praise to Allah!”, then the response, “Allah, Allah” - like a football chant - then the crowd-pleasing seduction of “Long live Iraq! Long live Palestine!”, and the jubilation spills out onto the streets as the ‘miracle’ is proclaimed. No, not Moses, but George.

George Galloway’s stunning bye-election victory has received a fair amount of media coverage. His capacity to tap into local issues to do with poverty and unemployment, and the local disaffection about the system of political patronage that seems to dominate Bradford politics, were part of his appeal. But stirring up racial and religious tensions and utilising his reputation as an opponent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came in handy too – as did the literature from his ironically-named ‘Respect Party’ that claimed that this Scottish Catholic was more of an adherent to Muslim principles than his Muslim Labour opponent: “God KNOWS who is Muslim. And he KNOWS who is not. Instinctively, so do you. [So you the voter, and I, George Galloway, are ‘instinctively’ in the same camp as God]...I, George Galloway, do not drink alcohol and never have. Ask yourself if the other candidate can say that truthfully...”

Although there are rumours that Galloway has in fact converted to Islam – he does seem to have a polygamous series of wives married in Muslim ceremonies – there’s no doubt he’s found a useful campaign strategy here: align yourself with God and smear your opponent as less religiously devout than you are. Galloway’s whole sickening mis-appropriation of the language and principles of religion – and particularly his megalomaniacal, self-deluding claim that his success was due to ‘divine intervention’ – seems to me an extraordinarily disturbing event in British politics. The media coverage seems to have passed over in silence these claims about the ‘sacred’ nature of the event. Perhaps they are more interested in the political dimensions of the election – or perhaps, not confident enough to judge a person’s theology, they see this language as just part of Galloway’s idiosyncratic personality. But I think we should pay a bit more attention to what’s going on here.

In The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky put into the mouth of his character Karamazov the view – now much-quoted, and much-disputed – that “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted”. But it seems to me that the opposite is as relevant, and perhaps more dangerous. For we have seen on countless occasions that once you claim to have God on your side, then anything is permitted: whether it is the Crusades or the occupation of ‘holy’ land, honour killings or the burning of heretics, the suppression of women or beating the devil out of children, too-readily knowing what ‘God’ wants can lead to mayhem, cruelty and murder.

In the mouth of a demagogue like Galloway, the phrase “All praise to Allah” carries a vicious and frightening undertone. Galloway has paid court to some modern pharoahs, dictators like Sadaam Hussein and Syria’s Bashar al Assad – they offer him an image of his own perverse ruthlessness, so no wonder he finds himself in thrall to their power-hungry personalities – and this co-opting of Muslim religious language is his latest ploy in grabbing power for himself.

So as Pesach (Passover) approaches, I find myself reflecting on how we can liberate the language of ‘God’ and the ‘sacred’ and ‘divine intervention’ from those who cynically co-op it for their own selfish and egotistical needs. The Haggadah text famously downplays the role of Moses in the extra-ordinary Exodus events it describes: Moses only gets a glancing mention within the traditional ‘Grace after Meals’ – he is completely absent from the first half of the seder, where the people’s journey from slavery to freedom is described and celebrated.

This of course runs counter to the Biblical narrative itself, where Moses’ hesitant-but-crucial leadership is highlighted within the story. But on seder night it is as if the anonymous compilers of the liturgy are making a discrete bid to de-legitimize any cult of personality. ‘Our story of salvation’, they seem to be saying, ‘is a story without a human Saviour’ – so our story is unlike that of Christianity, for example, the rival faith one feels they must have had in mind as they assembled the elements of the Jewish salvation story.

Freedom happens, they suggest, because there is a salvific force that enters into human events, perhaps when people least expect it. It comes, this force, with a power and an authority that sweeps people up in its force field, sweeps people along with what gradually – or suddenly – is experienced as a force of inevitability, unsettling the status quo, and reversing the prevailing dynamics of power.

Later on we might call it - our bards and poets might hymn it as - ‘God’s divine intervention’. Though at the time it was a mad scramble for survival and escape and taking the chance that came, the chaos of events, the lack of time to think, not even enough time to bake a loaf of bread, just the rising up in one’s spleen of the will to break free, the opportunism of the moment, when the society was reeling from one damned thing after another and death was all around and the powers-that-be were mourning their losses, and the wild-eyed visionary stuttering one and his shadowy, smooth-tongued brother said Now is the Time, the End-Time, ‘Let’s go, my people’ – though we might have got the words wrong in the confusion of the hour – but something stirred in our souls and we realised that we were not yet crushed unto death, our hearts were beating, still beating with the pulse of justice and the knowledge of injustices done and suffered, and we took our unleavened cakes of dough and at midnight – or thereabouts – we left our homes and our slave-lives and our Egyptian overlords, and broke free of our humiliation and broke free of our slavery to ‘it can’t be done’ and ‘it can never happen’, we broke free of our despair and our hopelessness, and some ancient spirit of defiance and hope breathed itself into our nostrils, we discovered again an animating energy we had forgotten we ever possessed, we found new life, like a grace flowing in our veins, and before we knew it we were away, away from there, on the journey, the truly immense journey, the journey we still are on.

And call it ‘divine intervention’ if you like.

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