only search

This week's editor

Rosemary Belcher-2.jpg

Rosemary Bechler is openDemocracy’s Editor.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Here we host debates on values, ethics, philosophy, spirituality, religions, and belief systems. There has never been a more important time to understand ourselves and one another better.

Our fallible prophet

Rational reflection and reasoning should not be a threat to religion. Drawing on religious texts, the author argues Muslims should embrace the fallibility of the prophet, and so free themselves of the shackles of history and paralyzing dogmas.

Manchurian mormon?

Mitt Romney needs to answers basic questions about potential conflicts between his religious vows and his prospective presidential vows.

India is ready for change, but censorship, taxation and corruption plagued the Art Fair

The fourth annual India Art Fair (IAF), held earlier this year, was hailed by Indian and international media as proof of an art culture come of age. The private opening was packed with the art-hungry moneyed class from all over the world, not least among them Indian buyers with an eye on potential investments.

The Great Partnership: multiculturalism, faith and citizenship

Do the supposedly civilised values of human rights and responsible citizenry become exclusionary, used to divide rather than unite? Is religion a partner of liberty? On the day the British parliament considers a bill proposing the banning of headscarves in public places, Robin Llewellyn reviews Jonathan Sacks' ‘The Great Partnership: God, Science, and the Search for Meaning’

2011, a year of wonder

A great scientific breakthrough is also a path to appreciating the core ingredient of our humanity, says Tina Beattie.

An arch-visionary of Canterbury

The leading religious authority of the Church of England has disappointed many of the hopes invested in him. Rowan Williams has indeed failed to address the challenges facing the Church and the Anglican Communion, not least its historic entanglement with state power. This is the project that his successor must understand, says Theo Hobson.

9/11: the identity-politics trap

The reaction to the attacks of 11 September 2001 included an instinctive veneration of their chief architect. Its deeper foundation is a regressive and widespread ethno-religious view of the world, says Sami Zubaida.

The dinner-party revolution

The dinner-party is a symbol of complacent presumption, the last occasion to be associated with genuine dialogue or the jolt of rethinking. But it’s possible to renew the ritual in surprising ways - and really caring about the food is just the start, says Keith Kahn-Harris.

Indonesia: pluralism vs vigilantism

A pattern of violence against the Ahmadiyah religious community, in which the perpetrators enjoy near-impunity and official indulgence, is disfiguring Indonesia. It also presents a wider challenge to the country’s vital search for a model of religious tolerance in public life, says Charles Reading.

Bin Laden, Dostoevsky and the reality principle: an interview with André Glucksmann

Europe is trapped by complacency and an all too human desire for oblivious contentment, says a leading French philosopher. This helps ensure the success of the nihilistic terror and extremist ideology exemplified by al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Nobody wants war – but genocide is worse than war.

Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: Why do you return to the work of Dostoevsky to explain the terrorism of the 20th and 21st centuries?

Moderate secularism: a European conception

The question of religion’s place in modern secular societies is intellectually contested and politically divisive. Here, the scholar Tariq Modood argues that European experience and institutional development can favour an accommodative model that respects religion yet goes beyond both toleration and even civic recognition. This moderate secularism, he says, meets the test of core democratic values while avoiding the dangers that fear-induced exclusion of religion from the public sphere would entail.

Egypt, and the post-Islamist middle east

The portrayal of Egypt’s uprising in terms of its potential capture by Islamists is doubly misleading, says Asef Bayat: for this misses both the true character of the people’s movement and the transformation of the Arab world’s religious politics.

Multiculturalism, Britishness, and Muslims

The idea of multiculturalism has been subjected to greater criticism in recent years, especially on the grounds that it is divisive and undercuts other solidarities of society, class or nation. But a fuller understanding of the context in which the arguments for multiculturalism arose and evolved can help both address some of the simplifications that now cluster around it and achieve a more nuanced view, says Tariq Modood.

The religious crisis of American liberalism

The extraordinary arc of Barack Obama’s popular appeal tells a deeper story of America: of how the relationship between liberalism and religion was forged, then frayed and broken, and how the president’s rhetoric offered the mirage of healing. Theo Hobson asks what, if anything, can be recovered from the ashes of a once-potent compact.

The “Islam” drumbeat: an Orwellian story

A reductive and tendentious portrayal of Islam and its followers is spreading across Europe and America. It is all too reminiscent of the chilling world imagined by George Orwell, says Arshin Adib-Moghaddam

Pope Benedict: the faith of authority

A delicate papal visit to Britain was in the end a diplomatic success. All the more reason to examine the ideas it advanced, says Michael Walsh.

Ayodhya: verdict and consequence

An Indian court’s ruling on the Hindu-Muslim dispute over the sacred site of Ayodhya sheds light on the relationship between two forms of rationality in India, says Deep K Datta-Ray.

Europe's Muslims: burqa laws, women's lives

Several European states - France, Italy, Belgium and Britain among them - are involved in legal, social or political disputes over the dress-codes of Muslim women. A detailed and alert survey of the variegated experiences and attitudes involved is the best way to understand a complex issue, says Sara Silvestri.

Siberian Shamans Come in From the Cold (part 3)

After decades of repression, Siberia’s shamans are re-emerging. Ken Hyder is a musician who performs with a Tuvan shaman. His novel describes the culture of contemporary shamanism as it emerges after decades of repression. Part three of three.

Siberian Shamans Come in From the Cold (part 2)

After decades of repression, Siberia’s shamans are re-emerging. Ken Hyder is a musician who performs with a Tuvan shaman. His novel describes the culture of contemporary shamanism as it emerges after decades of repression. Part two of three.

Siberian Shamans Come in From the Cold

After decades of repression, Siberia’s shamans are re-emerging. Ken Hyder is a musician who performs with a Tuvan shaman. His novel describes the culture of contemporary shamanism as it emerges after decades of repression. Part one of three.

The Catholic church’s scandal: modern crisis, ancient roots

The sexual violation of young people within the Catholic church is the poisonous legacy of a long tradition of contempt for human sexuality in an institution which has privileged secrecy and unaccountable power over transparency and participation. But the silence and darkness revealed by the scandal must not be allowed to define the majority of Catholics who are the living church, says Tina Beattie.

Iran: torch of fire, politics of fun

The doctrinal contempt of Islamist regimes for popular festivals such as the Iranian nowrooz (new year) extends to suspicion of every expression of spontaneous life. The result is to conjure the very rituals of resistance they fear, says Asef Bayat. 

Religion in schools, finally

Russia's Orthodox Church has finally won its battle to make religious education compulsory in schools, says Russian Orthodox Church official Viktor Malukhin. But the secularists have won concessions too

Patriarch Kirill's public triumph in Ukraine in July was preceded with another achievement no less important for the Russian Orthodox Church. This took place in the much more intimate atmosphere of the presidential residence in Barvikha, in the Moscow Oblast. There Dmitry Medvedev met with the leaders of Russia's traditional religions, and responded to two appeals from them.

He agreed that the history and culture of the country's main religions should be included in the core school curriculum. He also agreed that the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation should have military priests.

Patriarch Kirill was the first to sign both documents. The Muslim and Jewish religious communities supported the Orthodox position, despite previous objections from some muftis and rabbis.

What will this decision mean in practice for schools? Twice a week from the spring of next year, pupils in the fourth and fifth classes will study one of three new subjects. They and their parents will be able to choose between the religious culture of one religion (Orthodox, Islam, Judaism or Buddhism), the history and cultural background of the world's great religions, or the foundations of secular ethics. It will be compulsory for pupils to choose one of these three modules.

To start with, it will be introduced in 18 regions in six of the seven federal regions of Russia. The three-year experiment will be introduced in 12,000 Russian schools, 20,000 classes, 256,000 children and 44,000 teachers, according to the Ministry for Education and Science. From 2012, the new modules will be introduced to all Russian schools.

These three modules, "Foundations of religious culture", "Foundations of history and culture of world religions" and "Foundations of secular ethics",- will be taught by teachers who have taken a special training course, though most of them will probably have had  a secular education. The rector of Moscow's State University V.A. Sadovnichy has already expressed a desire to put the resources of the country's leading university behind the re-training of these specialists. But it is clear that at first the main problem will be a serious lack of qualified teaching staff.

The contents of the textbooks for these modules is also likely to prompt public debate. Consequently, the Church has already declared its readiness to work with the Ministry of Education and Science, the Russian Academy of Education, and a number of other institutes in order to inspect the new textbooks and study materials. This has already been announced by the head of the Synodal Department for Religious Education, Bishop Zaraisky Merkury.

The patriarchate has entrusted the writing of the new textbook on the foundations of Orthodox culture to the well-known Deacon Andrei Kuraev, professor of Moscow State University and the Moscow Spiritual Academy. "We must hope that these various textbooks will be written in such a way that whatever religion the children belong to, if they are going to fight during the school break, they'll use the books, rather than the words contained in them as weapons!" said the protodeacon.

"There should be no place for religious propaganda in these lessons, no appeals  to perform particular religious rites or to accept particular dogmas. The textbooks should not contain criticism of other religions, and there should not be a single line which could be used as an argument in the debate of the superiority of one religion over another. The subject should be treated secularly. It should be financed by a secular organisation, and ‘indoctrination' into any faith should be prohibited," stressed the author of the future Orthodox textbook.  

A long campaign

It took two decades to win state support for the teaching of religious culture. However, thanks to the persistence of children and their parents, and to the good will of local authorities and school heads, in many parts of Russia, classes in Orthodox or Muslim culture have in fact already become part of the curriculum - but only as optional subjects, or as part of the regional component of the curriculum.

For example, in the bishopric of Smolensk, which was headed by Bishop Kirill before he was elected Patriarch, they have already set up a three-tier system of spiritual and moral education for children and young people, embracing Orthodox kindergartens, lyceums and the appropriate faculties and departments in high schools.

In various other bishoprics it was agreed that the Church would work with local education authorities. Teachers were given training on the foundations of Orthodox culture. In one way or another, over half a million pupils are already studying the subject across the country. However, it was the abolition of the regional educational component two years ago that spurred the religious activists into action.

An open letter addressed by Patriarch Kirill to the minister for education and science A.A. Fursenko just over a month before the meeting at Barvikha testified to their disquiet. The Patriarch expressed his concern that despite the agreements previously arrived at, "the educational section on religious and moral culture was missing from the main (compulsory) section of the curriculum of the new federal state education standard for the education of the young proposed for publication on the official site of the Ministry for Education and Science of the Russian Federation. It had been proposed that this would come up with a number of subjects concerning a common system of moral values, to be chosen by pupils or their parents."

The Patriarch asked the ministry to reintroduce the subject of "spiritual and moral culture" to schools. He also asked them to include official representatives of the Church "in a working party tasked with developing federal state educational standards. Also to include them in all bodies connected with the confirmation of these standards, as also with the development of the curriculum on spiritual and moral culture".

The tone of barely restrained irritation in this document is understandable. For the Ministry of Education and Science had blatantly broken all previous agreements, including those reached at high-level meetings in the presence of the head of the presidential administration S.E. Naryshkin and his first deputy V.Yu. Surkov.

Besides, the Russian Orthodox Church (chiefly through the metropolitan, and subsequently through Patriarch Kirill), has been trying for years to persuade its opponents that teaching the foundations of religious culture is only intended to be a voluntary subject. There will be alternatives, which will take into account the regional predominance of different religions. 

The Patriarch was at pains to stress that his overriding concern was that the historical and cultural aspect of the new subject should be well established. For without a good grasp of the foundations of the religion that defines the state, it is impossible to understand the country's historical roots, or to appreciate the riches of its national culture.

There was much discussion of the fact that although Russia's constitution stipulates the separation of Church and state, in Russian history the Church is none the less closely linked with the lives of the people, as well as being a significant and influential aspect of civil society.

Finally, the Church issued a polite but firm reminder that freedom of conscience, seen solely as an unlimited opportunity to inculcate atheist thought, is a hangover from the worst days of the state's war against religion

Responding to critics who accuse the Church of trying to clericalise secular society, the Patriarch said: "We are worried about the moral climate in schools which forms the personality of the person, and his or her understanding of good and evil. This is what concerns us, not lobbying for a particular subject of the curriculum, as people often try to make out".

However, the lack of balance in the national education system does raise issues. For example, in Moscow today there are plenty of ethnic schools which receive municipal funding, and sometimes also from the state. There are several dozen Azerbaijani, Armenian, Georgian, Jewish, Korean, Lithuanian, Moldovan, Ukrainian, Tatar and many other schools, upper secondary schools and education centres. But strange though it may seem, there is not one which specialises in Russian culture (unless you count private schools like the Radonezh gymnasium). In fact, they have not been allowed to teach a course on Orthodox culture in mainstream Moscow schools. It would seem obvious that  such anomalies in our approach to educating young people could lead to serious inter-ethnic problems for those living in a multi-ethnic capital such as ours.

The Kremlin heard the voice of the Patriarch. So too did critics of the Moscow Patriarchate, who mocked the "Barvikha symphony" of the Church and State, the "Orthodoxisation of the country" and the "missionary revenge of the church". For they realise the threat which Patriarch Kirill's new policy, which is gaining increasing popular support, poses to their ideas.

This policy lies in turning nominal Christians, people who are Orthodox only in name, into active members of the Church. The Patriarch has set himself the task of bringing the growing generation of Russians into the church and taking care of them, a generation whose spiritual, moral and physical health is now being sorely tested by the false ideals that are forced on it - vulgar consumerism, social egoism, and attainment of personal success at any price. For as the old Russian saying goes, "he who does not know the law does not know sin either".

I hear that at a parish Sunday school where the well-known Moscow priest Maxim Kozlov teaches pupils sing this merry ditty after lessons: "Father Maxim is going to teach us ‘goats' (ed play on name Kozlov) everything!"

I like the pun, the self-deprecating humour. It makes me feel good about the future.

Viktor Malukhin works for the public relations department of the Moscow Patriarchate

"Born-again" Muslims: cultural schizophrenia

In the immediate aftermath of the skybombing of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on 11 September 2001, anyone with a minimum of human sympathy will be overwhelmed by feelings of rage and despair. Politicians, responding to the public mood, declare a “war on terrorism”. The airline industry goes into the proverbial nosedive. The stock markets tumble and experts predict that to the cost in human sorrow will be added the pain of economic recession.

Antichrist: the visual theology of Lars Von Trier

Lars von Trier is a tantalising film-director who provokes his audiences sometimes to the point of humiliation. He is also a master of visual theology. His Antichrist is the antithesis of Mel Gibson's tawdry and emotive The Passion of the Christ, offering as it does an exploration of the violent underbelly of the Christian story of sin and redemption. If Antichrist offers us any glimpse into the tortured psyche of its director, then it is a psyche sculpted around a visceral Catholicism of a much darker and more existentially credible kind than Gibson's lurid fantasies of crucifixion. A number of critics at the Cannes film festival derided von Trier for his dedication of Antichrist to Andrei Tarkovsky, and in doing so missed their affinity: for like the great Russian director, von Trier has a capacity to use the moving image as a celluloid icon through which to offer us glimpses into the depths of the Christian unconscious with its metaphysical terrors and yearnings.

In von Trier's Breaking the Waves, the female character Bess (Emily Watson) is a Christ-like figure, a disturbing representation of mysticism and madness who sacrifices her life to redeem the man she loves. It is a harrowing and controversial film, not least for the questions it raises about the extent to which Bess's prostitution and murder reinforce violent sexual stereotypes about female sexuality and martyrdom. Antichrist pushes these questions even further by asking us to contemplate what it would mean to portray woman not as a Christ figure but as Eve, who in the Christian theological tradition has been represented as the personification of evil and bringer of death to the world.

Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, England. Among her books are God's Mother, Eve's Advocate (Allen & Unwin, 2002), New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge 2005), and The New Atheists: The War on Religion and the Twilight of Reason (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2007). Her website is here In the 2nd century, Tertullian wrote of women: "You are the devil's gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert - that is, death - even the Son of God had to die." Von Trier takes his audience into the malevolent brew of these masculine beliefs and the havoc they wreak in women's lives.

The elusive source

Antichrist is an allegory of the Genesis myth which exposes the psychological terrors of Christian beliefs about the origins of sin. It draws its imagery not only from modern horror films but also from the teeming fears of medieval imaginations with their pervasive sense of evil and the power of Satan. The Antichrist of the film's title is everywhere and nowhere - a viscous and elusive presence that seeps through nature, including human nature, and infects it with futility, death and decay. The Antichrist is perhaps also the God-man himself, alluded to in the figure of the husband, whose misogynistic cult has sacrificed generations of women through persecution, burning and torture, while implanting in women themselves a deeply rooted sense of guilt and self-loathing.

The film opens with a prologue of exquisite pathos, filmed in black and white and played in slow motion to ethereal music (the Lascio Chi'o Pianga aria from Handel's Rinaldo - "Let me weep over my cruel fate, and that I long for freedom"). As the nameless protagonists (superbly played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Dafoe) make love, their toddler climbs out of his cot and down the stairs, briefly witnessing his parents' entwined bodies before falling to his death in the snow outside. Thus von Trier begins his exploration of the shadow side - the feminine side - of the Christian story of salvation, focusing on the Mary/Eve figure whose child must die to bring redemption to man; but at what cost to her? Also by Tina Beattie in openDemocracy:

"Pope Benedict XVI and Islam: beyond words" (17 September 2006)

"Veiling the issues: a distractive debate" (24 October 2006)

"Religion in Britain in the Blair era" (10 January 2007)

"Religion's cutting edge: lessons from Africa" (14 February 2007)

"The end of postmodernism: the ‘new atheists' and democracy" (20 December 2007)

"Rowan Williams and sharia law" (12 February 2007)

"The dark (k)night of a postmodern world" (21 August 2008)

"Along the precipice: visions of atheism in London" (6 November 2008)

"Banksy in Bristol" (24 June

Von Trier's woman is Madonna and whore, a tender and grieving pietà and a voracious and deadly seductress. In flashbacks we see how, the summer before her child's death, she had taken him to a cabin in a remote forest known as "Eden" to work on her doctoral thesis. Her topic was gynocide - a term coined by feminists to refer to the persecution and killing of women, particularly in the Christian tradition. As she studied she became convinced that the knowledge she sought was a lie, and that women really are guilty of the evil of which they have been accused. And so this young mother becomes von Trier's Eve, seeker of forbidden knowledge, bringer of death, bearer of the guilt of the human race, cause of the death of the Son of Man.

The husband is a therapist who decides to take control of his wife's rehabilitation, offering himself as her confessor and saviour as she plunges into the depths of inconsolable grief and madness over the death of her child. When she admits to him that she is terrified of the forest, he insists they go back there so that she can confront and rationalise her fears. Thus this human pair - Adam and Eve, everyman and everywoman - cross over a bridge which symbolises the boundary between culture and nature, reason and chaos, sanity and madness: the bridge into hell. The narrative of the film disintegrates as von Trier takes his archetypal western man of reason through the nightmares of his most repressed and irrational fears - the swamp of violent female sexuality and the savagery of nature.

There are several scenes where the husband tries to analyse his wife's fear of the forest. She tells him that her greatest fear is not the forest but something else. He draws a triangle and writes "Eden (garden)"  near the top, leaving a question-mark in the top position as he tries to find a word for the real source of her fear. At one point, she tells him that nature is "Satan's Church', and he puts Satan in the top position. Then, as he discovers the depths of her sense of personal evil and blame, he puts the word "me" - her ultimate fear is herself - only to cross it out again. I was reminded of Paul Ricoeur's study of Genesis, in which he ponders on the pre-existence of evil in the Garden of Eden, suggesting that we find ourselves in a world in which evil precedes us as an unnameable mystery. The symbols of the fall pervade this film, but the serpent never appears. Whatever the source of evil, it has already done its work before we enter this poisoned Eden.

The gynocidal story

Lars von Trier made Antichrist during a time of deep depression, and his antipathy to therapists is well known. Yet his target here is not just the therapy industry, but the controlling power of the rational masculine mind which refuses to acknowledge the mystery of good and evil, the primal chaos of nature, and those aspects of human experience which are beyond language and the control of reason. If it is a condemnation of modern psychotherapy, the film is also an oblique homage to Sigmund Freud who dared to venture into the forest of our darkest and most haunted dreams.

A recurring motif is the three beggars who symbolise grief, pain and despair and who provide the chapter titles for the film which, like Breaking the Waves, has its narrative interrupted by title pages: Grief, Pain (Chaos Reigns), Despair (Gynocide) and The Three Beggars. It might be pushing the symbolism too far to suggest that these allude to the beggars in Russian folklore who, like Christ, offer wisdom and compassion through suffering - it is hard to find any redemptive message in von Trier's portrayal of suffering here. The epilogue has a repeat of the Handel aria but it offers a kitsch fantasy of redemption. The man - saviour turned murderer - is wounded but alive in an Eden apparently restored to its original goodness, while the women whose dismembered bodies have recently littered the forest floor rise up in a general resurrection. But it is an ironic and mocking ending.

Whatever the meaning of redemption, the mystery of evil remains, and von Trier seems to imply that no resurrection or return to Eden can erase the gynocidal story which precipitates the biblical drama. As the closing credits rolled, I for one was left wondering whether those women were supposed to represent the redeemed at the heavenly banquet, or a hoard of vengeful harpies about to set upon the solitary man.

The mother of sorrows

So what to make of this? Antichrist has been condemned for being misogynistic and anti-Christian, but I think this is simplistic. Perhaps von Trier is even pointing a finger at those critics who seek to deny the chtonian depths of the human psyche by their moral posturing. The woman in this film is a vengeful and violent force of nature, but the film invites another reading too. She is also the mater dolorosa, the mother of sorrows whose grief is too vast to be contained in a world dominated by the forces of objective and rationalising masculinity. The more the man seeks to control her, the more uncontrollable she becomes, mutating into the woman of Genesis who is condemned to bear her children in pain and longs for the husband who will lord it over her (Genesis 3:16), but whose child will also be the source of their redemption.

There is a scene when the woman describes hearing her son's voice crying in the forest. She goes in search of him but he seems to be nowhere and everywhere. Suddenly, the camera pans up so that we have a God's eye view, and the child's cry becomes the cry of a cosmic Christ, suffering for the sins of the world. This imagery is reinforced by the mother's subsequent discovery of her child, playing in the cabin with a piece of wood in a pose reminiscent of paintings of the young Christ in his father's carpentry workshop, foreshadowing the wood of the cross. Later, the woman will use that same piece of wood in a castrating attack on her husband, in one of the film's most disturbing and explicit scenes of sexual mutilation and abuse.

This Eve is not the passive victim of male control. She seeks vengeance, allowing her terror of abandonment and forsakenness to drive her to extremes of sadistic and masochistic violence as she seeks to entrap the man, so that audiences have been appalled by the brutality of the film. But that may be part of its oblique message. Audiences of horror films have an apparently insatiable appetite for the penetration, mutilation and murder of female bodies. Just like those medieval images of burning and tortured women, the cinema reveals us to be a gynocidal culture, accepting as normal the mutilation and abuse of women by men, but horrified when it is women who become the abusers.

The missing half

Nevertheless, one is left with the uneasy question as to whether von Trier simply adds to the catalogue of gynocidal horrors which he exposes. Ultimately, it is not the woman but the man who survives, as the crucified one becoming the crucifier, and the woman inflicts upon herself the most savage sexual punishment for the evil of which she stands accused in her own eyes.

These ambiguities are part of the film's disturbing potency. Von Trier peels away the veneer of a domesticated, civilised religion and shows us the human condition as it appears in the darker, more pessimistic aspects of the Christian tradition, suggesting a fall into evil which plunges man, woman and nature into a state of savage alienation and violence.

One can of course argue that this is a deeply distorted reading of Christianity, for the woman at the heart of that tradition is Mary, the New Eve, whose divine motherhood symbolises God's peace with creation and the goodness and grace of woman redeemed. Yet as many feminists point out, Mary has occupied a position of unique purity and holiness in the texts and traditions of Catholic Christianity, while all other women have been identified with Eve as a primordial force of nature, chaos and death which must be resisted and controlled by the rational masculine mind. Von Trier might only tell half the story, but it is the half which has too often been allowed to define the whole in the history of western religion and culture.

Among openDemocracy's essays on world cinema:

Rosemary Bechler, "All our (Gothic) yesterdays: the really special relationship" (25 April 2002)

Maryam Maruf, "Spider-man!" (31 October 2002)

Geoff Andrews, "The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (1 November 2005)

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, "Letters to the past: Iwo Jima and Japanese memory" (23 February 2007)

Stephen Howe, "A murderous muse: Idi Amin and The Last King of Scotland" (12 January 2007)

Maggie Gee, "Babel: worlds within worlds" (17 January 2007)

Birgitta Steene, "Ingmar Bergman and Sweden: an epoch's end" (6 August 2007)

Patrice de Beer, "Calle Santa : between Chile and freedom" (16 January 2008)

Grace Davies, "One day of life: a Romanian odyssey" (13 March 2008)

Tarek Osman, "Youssef Chahine, the life-world of film" (29 July 2008)





Leszek Kolakowski: thinker for our time

A few weeks ago I was at a dinner in Bucharest, hosted by a small centre-right think-tank, at which the discussion focused on the continuing dominance in western universities of certain familiar styles of intellectual subversion: postmodernism, Michel Foucault, American feminism and the occasional bureaucratised version of these things in Jürgen Habermas, Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens.  

Roger Scruton is a writer, philosopher and public commentator. Among his recent books are Gentle Regrets: Thoughts From a Life (Continuum, 2005); News from Somewhere: On Settling (Continuum, 2006); Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter Books, 2007); A Dictionary of Political Thought (Palgrave Macmillan, 3rd edition, 2007); Beauty (Oxford University Press, 2009); Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation (Continuum, 2009); and I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher's Guide to Wine (Continuum, 2009). His website is here

Roger Scruton's many articles in openDemocracy include:

"Maurice Cowling's achievement" (26 August 2005)

"Jane Jacobs (1916-2006): cities for life" (2 May 2006)

"Power inquiry, public debate" (6 March 2006)

"The great hole of history" (11 September 2006)

"England: an identity in question" (1 May 2007)

"Richard Rorty's legacy" (12 June 2007)

"Ingmar Bergman: the sense of the world" (4 August 2007)

"Islamic law in a secular world" (14 February 2008)

"Alexander Solzhenitsyn: the line within" (7 August 2008)

Most of those present had spent time in a western university, and all had been troubled by the curriculum they had encountered there. In their eyes the western curriculum seems to have no other appeal than that which comes from deconstructing the forms of authority and order which have come down to us from our Judaeo-Christian culture. And yet that appeal is enough: nothing else seems required for academic legitimacy, and even if you write the kind of constipated sociologese of a Habermas or a Giddens, you can be guaranteed a position by those who would read you only so far as to extract the subversive and postmodern message.

Someone put on the table a copy of the first volume of Main Currents of Marxism, which had that day appeared for the first time in Romanian, and invited us all to contemplate it. The question on everybody's lips was "How did he get away with it?" How did Leszek Kolakowski not only survive coming into the open with the most devastating critique of Marxism and its intellectual fellow-travellers in existence, but go on to enjoy an academic career of unparalleled success in western universities, becoming a fellow of All Souls College at Oxford University, winning the MacArthur "genius" prize, normally reserved for prominent leftists, and the million-dollar John W Kluge prize for a lifetime's achievement in the humanities? He picked up honorary degrees and awards by the score, and retired to a comfortable life in Oxford, there to write books on subjects normally held to be marginal, if not shocking, by the liberal establishment - topics such as man's religious need, the concept of the sacred, and the need for a counter-Enlightenment in defining our spiritual home.

I was not able to answer the question. For I too have always been puzzled by Kolakowski's unorthodox journey. He fled Poland in 1968, part of an intellectual exodus that later included Włodzimierz Brus - whose continued adherence to Marxism facilitated an extended career in Oxford, having nothing else to recommend him to the English intellectual establishment. While Brus achieved only a brief moment of vicarious notoriety, when the attempt was made in the late 1990s to extradite his wife to Poland to stand trial for her alleged crimes during the Stalinist period, Kolakowski went from strength to strength.

The grand survey

Main Currents of Marxism began appearing in English in 1978, and made little impact on the curriculum in London University, where I was teaching, and where philosophy students had the chance to take an option in Marxism. The official view was that this book was a piece of marginal continental baggage, left over from 19th-century ways of seeing things. Kolakowski, it was said, had failed to see the real scientific potential of the Marxist vision, and his book was far too mired in literary controversies to deserve close attention.

Elsewhere, however, the impact of Main Currents began to be felt. It was impossible to dismiss it as a mere anti-communist diatribe: Kolakowski had himself been a Marxist, had joined the Communist Party in the period of post-war reconstruction, and had for a while shared the illusion of many Poles that communism offered the only secular alternative to fascism - the only way of organising a modern society that would remove oppressive relations between people and ensure some kind of social justice overall. He had grown away from communism, like most of his countrymen, in a state of disillusion rather than contempt, and had meanwhile read widely and deeply in the Marxist literature, so that Main Currents remains the most comprehensive survey of Marxism in existence, and one that traces the intellectual roots of the Marxist idea right back to tendencies in western thinking that were already revealed in the Enneads of Plotinus.

Most impressive, in my view, is the third volume of the work, in which Kolakowski directs his attention to the post-war forms of intellectual Marxism which were reshaping the western curriculum, and which were the real cause of those changes which had so appalled my Romanian friends. Kolakowski treats characters like Antonio Gramsci, György Lukács, Louis Althusser and Theodor Adorno with enough respect to make his criticisms stick, and he perceptively traces the French structuralist and post-structuralist movements of the 1960s to the way in which Marxist ways of seeing things had become institutionalised in French intellectual life.

The book does contain one huge lacuna - Michel Foucault, who is not menioned, even though it was he who was to pick up the banner that had been dropped in the gutter by Jean-Paul Sartre. My own view is that Foucault owes his appeal to perpetuating the Marxist way of seeing things beneath a non-judgmental veneer. He is giving what Marx hoped to give in The German Ideology - an account of "bourgeois"' society and its institutions that would remove the mask, and reveal the underlying workings of power. This lacuna aside, however, Kolakowski's survey of post-war Marxism provides a better explanation than any source that I know, of the decline of the humanities in western universities.

The human secret

In later life Kolakowski showed a growing attraction to the Catholic heritage in which he had been raised. It is never clear, in his later writings, precisely where he stands on the question of God's existence, Christ's resurrection and those minor details like the immaculate conception and the virgin birth. Nevertheless, he writes with enormous respect not just for those who believe in those things, but for the concepts which they use to organize their experience and to make sense of the world. In particular, he emphasised the great loss, as he saw it, which has ensued with the disappearance of the sacred from the worldview of western intellectuals. "With the disappearance of the sacred", he wrote, "arises one of the most dangerous illusions of our civilization - the illusion that there are no limits to the changes that human life can undergo, that society is ‘in principle' an endlessly flexible thing, and that to deny this flexibility and this perfectibility is to deny man's total autonomy and thus to deny man himself."

He was increasingly concerned with the need, as he saw it, to fill the god-shaped hole in the scheme of things which had been made by the Enlightenment, and which Marxism had tried to fill with an ideology of equality - an ideology that left its followers with a disenchanted vision of the social world, and an inability to find meaning in anything save political activism and the pursuit of power. He defended capitalism in the same spirit as Winston Churchill defended democracy, as the least worst system available.

"Capitalism", he wrote in 1995, "developed spontaneously and organically from the spread of commerce. Nobody planned it, and it did not need an all-embracing ideology, whereas socialism was an ideological construction. Ultimately, capitalism is human nature at work - that is, man's greed allowed to follow its course - whereas socialism is an attempt to institutionalize and enforce fraternity. It seems obvious by now that a society in which greed is the main motivation of human action, for all of its repugnant and deplorable aspects, is incomparably better than a society based on compulsory brotherhood, whether in national or international socialism."

Also in openDemocracy:

Adam Szostkiewicz, "Leszek Kolakowski, 1927-2009: a master figure" (21 July 2009)

As the quotation reveals, Kolakowski's thought was marked to the end of his life by his former Marxism. That he should see capitalism as motivated by greed alone, overlooking the beautiful constructs of contractual obligation, accountability and the rule of law, shows just how much the Marxist marginalising of such things as mere "superstructure" had left its mark on him.

Those who knew Kolakowski will remember his remarkable liveliness, achieved in defiance of long-standing physical frailty. I would encounter him, for the most part, at conferences and academic events. Nothing about him was more impressive than the humour and modesty with which he would deliver his opinions. He wore his scholarship lightly and showed a remarkable ability, until his death on 17 July 2009 at the age of 82, to respond with freshness and understandiong to the arguments of others.

And perhaps this was his secret, and the explanation of the way in which he "got away with it" - that he never entered the foreground of others' judgment as a dangerous opponent, but always as a sceptical friend. No alarm-bells sounded when he began his gentle arguments; and even if, at the end of them, nothing remained of the subversive orthodoxies, nobody felt damaged in their ego or defeated in their life's project, by arguments which from any other source would have inspired the greatest indignation.

Leszek Kolakowski, 1927-2009: a master figure

Poland, and Europe, are losing our best. A year ago it was Bronislaw Geremek, now it is Leszek Kolakowski. This great philosopher and public intellectual spent years after 1956 in brave and critical opposition to the communist orthodoxy that ruled Poland, before moving to the west in 1968. He chose to believe what he saw with his own eyes and could judge with his own mind, not what the party preached. When the gap became intolerable, he dared publicly to speak in defence of his core values: reason, truth and decency.   Adam Szostkiewicz is a writer and journalist with the weekly magazine Polityka in Warsaw

Also by Adam Szostkiewicz in openDemocracy:

"The Polish lifeboat" (22 September 2005)

"The Polish autumn" (26 October 2005)

"Poland's past and future pope" (13 April 2006)

"Poland marches: the people sound the alarm" (12 October 2006)

"Bronislaw Geremek: Polish and European liberal" (15 July 2008)

As a young man Kolakowski was himself a communist activist in post-1945 Poland, but soon turned into a socialist critic of the abuses of "really existing socialism"; this earned him the enmity of the establishment, which in 1968 forced him from his post as a philosophy professor at Warsaw University. His journey continued as he became a renowned champion of human rights and democracy, supporting peaceful struggles for change in Poland in a way that made him a hugely influential figure during the Solidarity era.

A ban on his ability to work or publish could not stop him inspiring Poland's independent-minded scholars and students, a deep influence that continued during his long years in the west. His prolific output included many articles, essays and books; most substantially, a three-volume intellectual history of the rise and fall of Marxism, which won him renown in Europe and the United States. In official Poland, he continued to be persona non grata until the transformations of 1989 and after.  

But Kolakowski's work filtered through via unofficial channels: copies of his Main Currents of Marxism trilogy were smuggled into Poland, and widely (if secretly) read by students and intellectuals - as well as high-ranking party and government functionaries. He acutely identified the loss of belief in official doctrines: "This ideology was supposed to mould the thinking of people. But it became so weak and ridiculous that nobody believed in it, neither the ruled nor the rulers."

The world and Poland too

When the democratic opposition movement became stronger in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the gestation of the Solidarity movement, underground printers took the risk of jail by reprinting Leszek Kolakowski's writings. 

Among the most popular of these were Kolakowski's "manifesto of hope against hopelessness" and his short presentation on "how to be a liberal-conservative-socialist". When I read those clandestine (an added thrill!) musings I was overwhelmed: that's the way, I thought, that's the path I want to pursue. In reacting this way I was only one of the many who found in Kolakowski an inspiration to think and act for myself in my then captive country. The Solidarity generation to which I belonged found Leszek Kolakowski to be one of its incarnations of courage, intellectual and political. 

What fascinated us was Kolakowski's evolution from a radical leftwing and anti-clerical dogmatism to an open-minded, self-critical, sometimes even self-mocking, liberalism. It was a liberalism that allowed a serious and unbiased analysis of religion. He considered the Christian gospels a foundation of European culture, but he also took a great interest in Buddhism. (I remember vigorously discussing the Buddha with Kolakowski in the home of his Polish friends in London). 

We were at the time - the early 1980s, the years of martial law after the crackdown on Solidarity - a pluralist crowd: a mix of socialists, anarchists, nationalists, Catholics. We argued about his ideas, but seldom denied his importance. What mattered was that he had changed his mind about the system, and continued to think for himself. 

He saw through the deceits of the socialism that had been built in Poland, and  identified the contradiction between its proclaimed social and democratic ideals and the harsh realities of the project to create a "new socialist man" -  to be implemented under the dictatorship of the party.        

In one of Kolakowsk's late and recently published interviews with Anna Bikont, he described his private library in Oxford, where he lived and worked as a fellow at All Souls College for many years until his death on 17 July 2009. There were all sorts of books, on almost every subject: he was one of the curious kind. This was a philosopher who loved poetry, which he read in Polish, German, French (Baudelaire was a favourite), and Russian. There were the great European novels, books on art, the Jewish and other religions, on the Bible, on witches and the devil - everything under the sun.

The cultural Leszek Kolakowski was as important as the political one. He was an incarnation of what seems to me the very best in the 20th-century Polish and European intelligentsia. Never a guru, always a master. 

Musawah: solidarity in diversity

"This was inspirational. I got the same goose bumps at the rally the day Mandela was released," grinned Waheeda Amien, a founder of Shura Yabfazi which works to empower Muslim women in South Africa, at the close of the five-day launch of Musawah: a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family last week.


"It speaks to the true you that combines your identities as a feminist and as a Muslim woman," commented Hadil el-Khouly, a young Egyptian activist who coordinated the young women's caucus at the event.


"For young women especially these battles are very personal: most young women are living at home, have to fit in with society, face pressures to get married. Musawah takes you out of the isolation"


"When I began reading and looking for answers, I used to think there were only one or two other women who thought like me. Now I know there are millions!" laughed Shaista Gohir, Executive Director of the Muslim Women's Network-UK, gesturing towards the Kuala Lumpur conference hall filled with some 250 women activists and scholars - and a handful of men - from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and countries of the North.


For one young Uzbek woman who cannot be named for her own safety, "We solved the issues of the laws decades ago. We have the laws. For us the question is the implementation. So I could relate to some of the experiences: like Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia where the laws are in place and we now need to tackle inequality at home."

But for Raissa Jajurie of the Alternative Legal Assistance Centre in the Philippines it is a very different story: "We are a minority group in Mindanao. With the armed struggle going on, it is difficult to look into gender issues among the Muslims, but we are nevertheless taking baby steps. Musawah has inspired us to look at the various possibilities and given us the tools to work with."


Yet the similarities were clearly visible, in particular the misuse of culture and religion to deny women full citizenship and equality in the family. As United Nations Special Rapporteur Yakin Ertürk put it in her keynote speech, "Culture has become the new stage for global wars. Women stand at the centre." However, the participants in our debate were keen to challenge the dominant understanding which pits human rights against culture: "This meeting has added value to the women's movement with its approach of bringing fiqh [Muslim jurisprudence] and universal human rights together," noted Ghada Shawgi of the Khartoum Human Rights Centre, Sudan.


Several participants came from countries such as Iran, Mauritania and Uzbekistan where women's rights activism and public opposition to state gender policies can carry a heavy personal price. Others, such as 31-year old Nassirou Zahara Aboubacar, one of only two women on Niger's Islamic Council, occupy positions of recognized public authority in their countries.


Many women present, especially from North Africa and South Asia had previously used purely secular strategies. But as senior Egyptian feminist Amal Abd el-Hadi explained, "I need to learn now to demystify religion and these claims." Demystification and indeed ‘desacralization' of supposedly divine edicts was also a demand from participants who have long been feminists working within the framework of religion. We have many women leaders but the problem is that their interpretation of the Qur'an is what the religious men tell them. This has got to change first," pointed out Djingarey Maiga, from Femmes et Droits Humains in Mali.


As Special Rapporteur Ertürk commented: "There is a growing convergence around human rights values, whatever their source may be." This holistic framework combines Islamic principles, international human rights, national guarantees of non-discrimination, and analysis drawn from lived realities.


In many ways, a new way of thinking about gender relationships and the family requires new ways of movement-building, and some of those involved in the initiative believe Musawah offers just this. "A lot of feminist organizing is driven by elites. I see Musawah's emphasis on people's daily lives as an opportunity for women at the grassroots to take the lead. It's really about how they see things in their Muslim contexts," says Asma'u Joda from the Centre for Women and Adolescent Empowerment in Nigeria.


Despite the pressure of media interest and the sheer excitement of the event, the participants refused to be pushed into premature campaigning. "The end of this meeting is not a programme of activities and a structure: we need to build a foundation before we construct the house," commented Musawah Planning Committee member Kamala Chandrakirana from Indonesia.


Nevertheless, one concrete outcome was a clear rejection of the proposal from the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) to produce an alternative to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Another development at the launch was the forming of Musawah caucuses in Africa and among minority communities in the global North, both designed to bring regional perspectives to national campaigns and to the global movement.


Although the focus remains on family laws, the synthesis firmly placed Musawah in its wider context. It acknowledged the impact of conflict, authoritarianism and occupation on rights within the family: "We need democracy so there is space to discuss the role of Islam in our public and private lives," noted Rabéa Naciri of the Association Democratique des Femmes du Maroc. All the many other women's rights initiatives in Muslim contexts, the struggles of women in other religious traditions to reform their laws, and the global human rights movement were likewise represented at the event.


Identifying itself as a ‘knowledge-building movement', Musawah (whose name means ‘equality' in Arabic) not only bridges diversities in terms of context and approach to women's rights but also seeks to bring rights activists and Muslim scholars together as part of the process of generating new approaches to equality and justice in the Muslim family.


The launch was the first time that such a large number of women's rights activists from Muslim contexts and scholars had been brought together. Speaking on behalf of the international planning committee of 12 academics and activists from 10 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Zainah Anwar of Sisters in Islam, Malaysia said, "We hope this will strengthen the arguments used by activists as well as encourage Muslim scholars who support human rights to continue their research. Both of these groups face heavy opposition from some religious groups who claim that ‘non-expert' activists have no right to reinterpret Muslim family laws, and who dismiss the scholarship of those who deviate from patriarchal interpretations."

See also Home Truths in the Muslim family

See also Musawah: there cannot be justice without equality


Musawah: there cannot be justice without equality

A call for equality and justice "in the Muslim family" is being launched by a group of Muslim scholars and activists who insist that in the 21st century "there cannot be justice without equality" between men and women.

Musawah (which means ‘equality' in Arabic) insists that change is possible by combining arguments from Islamic teachings, universal human rights principles, fundamental rights and constitutional guarantees, and grounding these arguments in the realities of women and men's lives in Muslim contexts today.

Barack Obama and the American void

There is something desperately lonely about Barack Obama's universe. One gets the overwhelming sense of someone yearning for connection, for something that binds human beings together, for community and commonality, for what he repeatedly calls "the common good". This is hardly news.

The politics of ME, ME, ME

The conflict in Gaza has dominated world headlines since the closing days of 2008. The war there is an exceptional event yet it also contains many elements of the familiar - in part because even at the “best” of times, media coverage of the middle east can be intense. In the new media age this coverage includes featuring and reflecting the intense engagement of people from around the world in the affairs of the region.

John Milton’s vision

To honour the English writer John Milton on the 400th anniversary of his birth is to acknowledge his persistent otherness in the country he tried to transform, says Theo Hobson.

Along the precipice: visions of atheism in London

"One wants to do this thing of just walking along the edge of the precipice." (Francis Bacon)

An enterprising plan to display an atheist message on the side of sixty of London's red buses from January 2009 suggests that, if there is a God, she has a rather wicked sense of humour. The advertisement, which is sponsored by donors who include the British Humanist Association and Richard Dawkins, reads: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The idea may have struck more of a chord before the world's financial convulsions, when the popular Zeitgeist included indulging the extravagances of a consumer economy sustained by unlimited credit, than at a time when people are very worried about basic monetary security. It is in such a time, after all, that the search for faith and transcendent meaning often flourishes; when the easy comforts of a society whose only pursuit is of "enjoyment" can begin to seem hollow.  

Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, England.

Among her books are God's Mother, Eve's Advocate (Continuum, 2002), New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge 2005), and The New Atheists: The War on Religion and the Twilight of Reason (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2007). Her website is here

Also by Tina Beattie in openDemocracy:

"Pope Benedict XVI and Islam: beyond words" (17 September 2006)

"Veiling the issues: a distractive debate" (24 October 2006)

"Religion in Britain in the Blair era" (10 January 2007)

"Religion's cutting edge: lessons from Africa" (14 February 2007)

"The end of postmodernism: the ‘new atheists' and democracy" (20 December 2007)

"Rowan Williams and sharia law" (12 February 2007)
In any event, there is nothing original or provocative about that banal agnostic slogan. It has been the credo of our western consumerist societies since the 1960s. A "probably" non-existent God has been banished from the public square and confined to increasingly empty churches in the company of a few deluded pious souls, leaving a large part of society to make merry (and money) with a sense of glorious liberation from the repressive effects of religion.

For the followers of a new and more ruthless deity have been building their temples in this society's midst. The fervour of their worship is familiar: a horde of over-excited, gesticulating men (like most religions, this one is dominated by men), shouting their prayers and petitions at the great glowing icons above them, placing their faith in the random and unpredictable whims of the gods, offering human sacrifices when necessary and creating a cult of secrecy so dense that the rest of us failed to see what they were up to until their creed had insinuated itself into so many institutions - governments and political processes, workplaces, schools and universities, shops, even homes and families.

What is the name of this all-powerful, all-controlling God? It may have once been called Mammon, but most today know it as The Market, and his followers (this God is most certainly male) are called CEOs and hedge-fund managers and oligarchs and traders. The Market dictates, responds, demands, even suffers (it is common to hear broadcasters use phrases such as the markets have "endured a brutal week"); and its minions and worshippers - politicians, bankers and taxpayers alike - do its bidding.

The power of this God would make "The Market probably doesn't exist" a more challenging slogan for London's buses to carry. But if anyone in the city wants to know what it would be like if God does not exist, they should take one of those buses to Tate Britain to view the exhibition of paintings by Francis Bacon. For this artist, there is no "probably" about it: God has been destroyed by the nihilistic horrors of 20th-century human behaviour, and the artist - recognising perhaps that people so often prefer the escapist route of consoling delusions - feels compelled to express the true face of a world without God.

A world inside out

Francis Bacon had an authoritarian Catholic father who expelled him from the family home on discovering the teenager wearing his mother's dresses. The remnants of this discarded Catholicism litter Bacon's art, like so much debris washed up by Matthew Arnold's "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the sea of faith. Bacon's many sources of inspiration included Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altar, though he turns Grünewald's vision inside out, forcing our gaze beyond its message of redemption and healing, to confront us with the mangled meat that we are: savage and savaged beasts in a God-less world.

Grünewald intended the graphic torment of the crucified Christ to be a symbol of hope for the dying patients who knelt before it in the hospital chapel of St Anthony's monastery in Isenheim; but Bacon's crucified and monstrous bodies have the opposite intention, that of destroying any lingering trace of faith in a benevolent deity, a rational or redeemable humanity or a better hereafter.

This is the artist who once said: "I think that man now realises that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason."

Bacon's paintings from the 1940s to the mid-1960s reveal his genius at its terrifying and relentless best. Life is mirrored in the art - the genocidal landscape of 20th-century history is gorged upon and spat out onto canvases in which paint and image, form and matter, congeal in visceral gloops of despair. In Head II (1949), a bestial shape oozes out of paint as thick and coarse as elephant-hide - is it winning or losing the struggle to take form against the suffocating sludge of primal matter? Why does it matter, if God is dead?  A series of early 1950s images inspired by Velásquez's Pope Innocent X howl from their entrapment in the dissolving and encroaching abyss. They look like popes should look, if there is no God.
Also in openDemocracy on matters of faith and unbelief:

Michael Walsh, "The Regensburg address: reason amid certainty" (19 September 2006)

Yves Gingras, "Science and mysticism: a tainted embrace" (17 August 2007)

Mark Vernon, "The bad faith of the secular age" (15 November 2007)

Keith Kahn-Harris, "How to talk about things we know nothing about" (21 February 2008)

John Casey, "Rediscovering traditionalism" (24 September 2008)

Then there are the paintings titled Man in Blue, also from the early 1950s. What astonishing serendipity that this exhibition appears in London at this time, with Bacon's tormented gaze seeing through the gloss and glaze of the City the faceless creatures trapped in its bureaucracies and institutions. His 1955 painting of a chimpanzee echoes the bestiality of his suited businessmen. We are animals, all of us: in the Darwinian fight some dissolve back into flesh and non-being even before they are formed, while others succeed at the business of becoming stronger beasts and get briefly ahead of the pack. But there is no God, so what's the point? Life is shit, and then we die.

This is what atheism looks like, to those who have eyes to see. This is what it feels like, to suffer without hope, to have the courage and the truthfulness to live in fidelity to a vision of Darwinian despair about the human condition. Like the master of Grünewald, Bacon sought to exploit the connection between the suffering human body and its artistic representation by dissolving the space of mediation between the two. He once said that he wanted his art to appeal directly to the nervous system, bypassing the process of interpretation and the search for meaning. In the Isenheim Altar, the fusion of body and art becomes a sign of incarnational hope, of flesh redeemed through the incarnate Word. In Bacon's repeated studies of crucifixion it becomes a sign of vicious and futile barbarity, of meaning devoured by the all-consuming flesh.

An act of defiance

Yet the paradox remains that the power of all great art - however nihilistic its message - depends upon the human capacity for transcendence. There are agnostic thinkers such as Peter Fuller and George Steiner who argue that only what Fuller called "a wager on transcendence" makes great art possible at all. In the obsession to represent, to create images which transcend the grip of the animal mind in order to explore a shared meaning and a common vision, Bacon must contradict the message he communicates. However much he resisted any attempt to find meaning in his art, its very existence depends upon the fact that humans are a meaning-making species - creative animals with a capacity for transcendence, imagination and linguistic and artistic expressiveness, all of which marks us out from the other life-forms with which we share the planet.

The howl of protest against the torment of the flesh is in itself an act of defiance against the void: a refusal to succumb to the nihilism that would render us mute and meaningless in the face of our human capacity for suffering and violence. We cannot short-circuit the quest for meaning which makes art possible, and within that possibility lingers the haunting question of what lies beyond the here and now, beyond the meat and the muck of our bodily selves.

There is a transition in Bacon's later works, so that by the 1980s the assault upon our senses becomes filtered through something less visceral and raw. The paint is less textured, the fusion of form and content yielding to a more stylised approach in which the dismembered and grotesque bodies have lost the pathos, the despair and vulnerability of the earlier work. There is a subtle shift from great art to something more akin to poster-painting. It is as if the artist's mourning and raging against the death of God has moved towards a reconciliation with the seductive message of modern consumerism: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

But the earlier work's insistence that God is dead makes it as theological in its meaning as all those great works of Christian art which inspired Bacon; a negation, after all, acquires its meaning from that which it negates and that which it refuses. The early crucifixion themes, for example, shock with the absence of God and the consequent dissolution of the humanist enterprise. Bacon once said: "I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace of past events, as the snail leaves its slime."

A cosmic wager

But that snail's trail is a divine trail as well as a human one - because for nearly 2,000 years the western understanding of the human was inseparable from the western understanding of God. The mutual imaging between the human and the divine lingers in the recognition that the snail's trail of an abandoned humanity is also that of an abandoned divinity. In a later work, Triptych (1976), a chalice and a host are shown amidst the figures; though here they are empty symbols, suggesting a rebellious gesture more worthy of the so-called new atheists than the tortured anti-theological profundity of the earlier work.

Bacon may have been a nihilist, but like Nietzsche, he recognised that the death of God also signalled the death of the familiar, common-sense concept of the human. This is an atheism which is altogether different from the banal and bourgeois atheism emanating from the (predominantly) white male intelligentsia of little England. This atheism is rooted in a bewildering confidence - for it lacks foundation either in the Darwinian materialism to which it is wedded, or in the human capacity for rationality and progress to which it appeals. Intelligent atheism, like intelligent religion, offers few consolations if the challenges it poses to human knowledge, values and reasoning are taken seriously.

For some of us, faith is a positioning of our lives upon a fulcrum of possibility, challenging us to live with the unanswerability of the questions it poses and the doubts it accommodates. Such an outlook may find the mourning rituals for a dead God meaningful in themselves, and more worthy of time and attention than the kind of banal satisfaction promoted on the London buses. Whatever we mean by that word "God", there is inspiration and mystery to be discovered in the legacy which Christianity has bequeathed to our understanding of the world - in its music, art and architecture, in its Masses and devotions, in the compassionate and selfless endeavours of those who work in hospitals and refugee-camps around the world, witnessing to the existential possibility of a human world rooted in reconciling hope rather than competitive nihilism.

But for those who cannot take that wager on belief, atheism is a persuasive and respectable alternative. Go then to the Francis Bacon exhibition, and see what it entails. For Bacon shows the real thing, the savage beast that we are, suggesting that Martin Heidegger may have been right after all: only a God can save us now.

Anatolian Muslimhood: humanising capitalism?

A week in Istanbul can hardly fail to be an enriching experience for the intellectually curious visitor - even more when this great city, and Turkey generally, is at the heart of so many of the world's shaping concerns of faith and politics. This was certainly the case for me, when I stayed in Istanbul as a guest of the London-based Dialogue Society which supports the ideas and aims of the influential Islamic thinker Fethullah Gülen.

These days of intense and enjoyable discussion - against the backdrop of escalating legal and political dispute in Turkey - took place in a conference room, in mosques, and over meals in people's houses. The participants were around forty in all; almost all the visitors were academics. The Turkish hosts were the majority; the guests came northern Europe and the United States, and included people from a variety of Christian denominations as well as atheists. The atmosphere was informal.Max Farrar  is a  sociologist  at Leeds Metropolitan University. He is the author of a book about Chapeltown in Leeds, The Struggle for ‘Community' in a British Multi-Ethnic Inner-City Area ( Edwin Mellen Press, 2002 )Also by Max Farrar in openDemocracy:

"Leeds footsoldiers and London bombs" (22 July 2005)

"In search of British Muslim identity: responses to Young, Angry and Muslim" (28 October 2005)  - part of an online symposium

Our common interest lay in examining the ideas and practices that flow from Fethullah Gülen's thirty years of searching for truth through incremental renewals of the Islamic faith (see M Hakan Yavuz & John L Esposito, eds., Turkish Islam and the Secular State, Syracuse University Press, 2003).

The western media coverage of Gülen and his movement (such as it is) has concentrated on two questions: whether they really are as good as they seem, and whether this is the "moderate" bulwark against the Islamists that "the west" so desperately seeks. The first is an important issue because the Kemalite Turks who have ruled the country since the republic's foundation on 29 October 1923 are certain that the movement's real aim is sinister: to overturn Kemal Atatürk's secular constitution and impose a form of Islamic fundamentalism (see Erik J Zürcher, A History of Modern Turkey, IB Tauris, 2004).

Is there a hidden agenda? The Dialogue Society has been working with my university in northern England for almost two years now with the explicit, agreed aim of subjecting the Gülen movement to academic scrutiny. The latest gathering was designed both to further the intellectual debate initiated at an international conference in 2007 and to bring the media and business arms of the network into full view.  

The wealth and the spirit

The movement appears to be very rich, leading to questions about the source of its money (with the implication that if the money is "bad", then the movement must be too). The answer seems to be: voluntary donations, largely from rich businessmen. The Gülen network's organisations - mainly schools, based in over 100 countries - are publicly registered and subject to legal scrutiny. Their members are also highly motivated, as reflected in the fact that Fethullah Gülen was (in July 2008) voted the world's most significant intellectual in the respected intellectually monthly journal Prospect.

If there were any secret and "bad" funding it is near-certain that the Kemalites would have unearthed it by now. After all, the state agencies' intelligence-gathering is a central feature in the alleged "Ergenekon" plot against the Gülen-influenced government which is now in its trial stage (see Bill Park, "Ergenekon: Turkey's ‘deep state' in the light", 7 August 2008). But, if the Gülen movement really is what it claims to be - a tolerant, pro-democracy, socially conservative, European Union-oriented movement which promotes modern, secular education and favours advanced business methods - the Kemalites must be very worried about it. It has, after all, displaced them from their position at the centre of Turkish cultural life by democratic means.  But if they are what they claim to be, they are no threat to secularists who respect moderate forms of religious practice.

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Turkey's politics:

Fadi Hakura, "Europe and Turkey: sour romance or rugby match?" (13 November 2006)

Katinka Barysch, "Turkey and the European Union: don't despair" (27 November 2006)

George Schöpflin, "Turkey's crisis and the European Union" (23 July 2007)

Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Turkey's political opening" (24 July 2007)

Gunes Murat Tezcur, "Turkey's Kurdish challenge" (8 November 2007)

openDemocracy, "Turkey and a new vision for Europe" (12 December 2007) - a statement by leading European intellectuals

Hasan Turunc, "Turkey and Iraqi Kurds: the politics of military action" (25 February 2008)

Mustafa Akyol, "Turkey's ‘Islamic reform': roots and reality" (4 March 2008)

openDemocracy, "Turkey's risk, Europe's role" (2 April 2008) - a second statement from a group of European intellectuals

Katinka Barysch, "Turkey: the constitutional frontline" (14 April 2008)

Cem Özdemir, "Turkey's clash of values: memo to Europe" (29 April 2008)

Bill Park, "Ergenekon: Turkey's ‘deep state' in the light" (7 August 2008)
At the event, we listened to the stories of men from humble backgrounds who had after years of work and investment recently become rich; they now supported the movement's drive for an ethical capitalism. They seemed to personify the argument of the Nobel prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk (in his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City) that the elite's cosiness with the Turkish Kemalite military is based on the shared fear that people rooted in or close to the great unwashed mass of urban and rural (and Muslim) working people are on the verge of gaining power.

The Gülen people seemed at peace with themselves. There was no sign of what Pamuk describes as the "spiritual void" in the elite among whom he grew up - whose privileged children n public talk of mathematics and football, but "grapple with the most basic questions of trembling confusion and painful solitude".

A tradition in focus

In my view, the movement is what it says it is. The encounter with it raises in my mind three issues, more interesting than the questions posed in much of the western media.

The first is the way the movement responds in practice to those who criticise Islam's patriarchal bias. The women we met from the Gülen movement were as impressively intelligent, as fully engaged in public life and as confident and outgoing as their equivalents in the west (see "Sex and Power in Turkey: Feminism, Islam and the Maturing of Turkish Democracy", European Stability Initiative, 2007). Women compose about three-quarters of the workforce at the  Zaman media group, whose publications - such as the impressive Today's Zaman - are close to the movement.

The Qur'anic verses which insist on women's equal human status with men really do seem to operate in the movement. The women (choose to) obey the injunction to dress modestly; at the same time, the verse "(there) is no compulsion in religion" seems to operate as strongly on this question as it does in the movement's relations with people of other faiths. But, as the Muslim feminist Kecia Ali points out, the Qur'an does not propose full social equality, however ‘complementary' men's and women's roles are seen to be (see Sexual Ethics And Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur'an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence, Oneworld, 2006).

The second issue is the way the movement places itself in the context of Islam as a whole, not least given its strong commitment to changing Islamic practice, The movement resists the idea that it is reformist. "Renewal" is as far as Fethullah Gülen himself will go, because he insists that he is absolutely rooted in the Qur'an and the hadith.

These roots in tradition are the only thing they have in common with the salafi current of rigorous ("fundamentalist") Islamism that has widespread influence in Saudi Arabia. It is precisely in sharing and being part of this tradition, and having a recognised scholar of Islam at its head, that gives the movement such potential to rally influence Muslims worldwide (see Ehsan Masood, "A modern Ottoman", Prospect, July 2008).

To the outsider, it looks like major developments are taking place. The movement deliberately builds schools, rather than mosques; its educational model may be elitist, but it offers bursaries for the poor, and girls and boys are equally welcome. In justification, they reiterate that the Prophet Mohammed insisted that all people must develop and use their powers of reasoning (see Patricia Crone, "What do we really know about Mohammed?", 31 August 2006).  

In public discourse, the Gülen movement accuses the Kemalites of "fundamentalist secularism" - since the Kemalites use secularism as a stick to beat down the supporters of Gulen. But the movement strongly supports a western-style secular state, on two grounds: this is the model that truly separates the state from religion (rather than subordinating religion to the state, as in modern Turkey under the Kemalists); and it guarantees freedom to worship in any way that people choose (thus making "no compulsion..." a reality).

In deciding which political system should be favoured, the movement's method is an artful fusion. The Qur'anic past is again invoked to establish the movement's theological credentials (it invokes the prophet's introduction of inclusive decision-making in Medina as its model), but this sits alongside a passionate advocacy of democracy (a radical break here with the salafi denunciation of "man-made laws").  

Fethullah Gülen is in the centre of Islamic belief that the Qur'an is the revealed word of God, and thus cannot be modified. But the prophet's own practice, he goes on, initiated the processes of interpretation that have been continuously developed for the past 1,400 years. These processes are influenced by the conditions of their time, and their geographical location. The implication could be drawn that this - Turkish and modern - movement is developing an Anatolian Muslimhood which might influence other formations of Muslimness.

The constraints of character

The third issue the encounter led me to reflect on is the rather quaint notion of "character" (especially in light of recent discussion on this topic in the British context about the search for public policies that can enforce "pro-social behaviour"). It is instructive in this respect to note the character of the people I met in the Gülen movement (students, journalists, business-people, academics and volunteers) did appear to embody the movement's values of sincerity, openness, respect, empathy and concern for the other. Their warmth and care shows every sign that this is indeed a movement producing thinking, compassionate human beings.

These kind people are, though, just as committed to neo-liberal capitalism as the western leaders - politicians, financiers, central-bank governors - who are currently engaged in frantic efforts to consolidate it in face of systemic crisis. Fethullah Gülen may have created a fascinating variant on Max Weber's message about the Protestant ethic's symbiosis with the spirit of capitalism, yet he emphasises none of Weber's darker messages about modernity (see "Islamic Calvinists: Change and Conservatism in Central Anatolia", European Stability Initiative, 2005). In the end, therefore, what I think we were witnessing in Istanbul was the emergence of yet another effort by spiritual people to humanise a monster. It is probably the best organised and most coherent effort yet; but, as with all the world's religions, this movement seems unable fully to confront the massive injustices and inequalities that capitalism engenders.

Syndicate content