From Irish Political Review: July 2007

Reflections On Palestine, Part 6
Allah Akhbar

"God bothering" is a common pejorative term in secular Britain, and in parts of Ireland since the decline of the Catholic Church. What is really meant is "people bothering", though the botherers give the impression of bothering God as well. It normally applies to missionary Protestants who seem to feel their, usually new-found, religion as strange and wondrous as do the rest of us. They don't so much live in a world in which God is all-present, as in a world where he is ever-present. They are odd-balls.

A few years ago I began to get to know a man who was "normal" in every way. He was interesting at the levels of politics, sport, music, or books, as well as common or garden chit chat. Being away from my roots for a generation, I was astonished to discover that he was an active member of a sincere and quite strict Protestant congregation. He was in Northern Ireland where one can still develop and thrive in a religious environment without bothering God or anyone else.

That is the kind of environment that exists in Palestine and in the Middle East generally. It is to some extent like the environment in which I grew up. Though Catholic Ireland was far more pious than Palestine. Cork was less pious than Dublin or Limerick but God came into normal conversation regularly. When speaking of someone who was dead you said "the Lord have mercy on him". Words like "please God" or "thank God" or "with the help of God" peppered normal conversation. They do so also in the Middle East.

Religion provides a framework through customs and sets of rules within which people not only co-exist and relate to each other, but which puts few obstacles in the way of their personal, social and political development. This would be disputed by most people in a place like secular Britain. But such dispute is only valid if one expects everyone in the world to develop towards the values cherished or tolerated in secular Britain.

One can cherish these values only if, as Tony Blair recently said, you believe that: "The British are special. The world knows it. In our innermost thoughts we know it. This is the greatest nation on earth". On the other hand visits to Nottingham or Nablus on Saturday nights might provoke a more rational comparison of value systems.

Last year, at the end of the war, I was taken around the border villages of South Lebanon by a Druze man who had been involved in the evacuation of the families of Hezbollah soldiers. He said he could not understand why the Israelis were so greedy since they worshipped the same God that he worshipped. Their mutual God surely would wish for everyone to have his fair share.

I said I doubted that most Israelis worshipped any God at all, and that the religious Jews were the least of his problems. Indeed many religious Jews were very anti-Zionist. I also felt that secular Jews were by instinct internationalist, and that Jewish nationalism was a dead end and would increasingly be seen as such.

The majority of Palestinian Arabs are Sunni Muslim. In normal conversation this is seldom obvious (apart from the dress of the women). A large minority are Christian—mostly Catholic or Greek Orthodox. (I found no internal dynamic in Palestinian Christianity which would produce Protestantism—any more than I've found it in Germany or Spain. But that is an issue for another place and time.)

On the other side, so to speak, the majority were secular Jews with a large minority of religious Jews and a smaller minority of Russian Orthodox Christians, economic migrants pretending at the port of entry to be Jewish. Most of the religious Jews that I met were in West Jerusalem—a vibrant and interesting place compared to the rest of the State of Israel.

Much is made in the West about the way that people, especially women, dress. It is a common sight in Jerusalem to meet women with scarves covering their heads, skirts down to their ankles and, even in warm weather, chunky jumpers several sizes too big. That is how religious Jewish women dress.

Nothing can be made of this for fear of seeming anti-Semitic, which it probably would be. And anti-Semitism is, at least for the time being, while it suits, said to be taboo by the powers-that-be in Britain and America.

No such inhibitions exist when it comes to criticizing the way that Muslim women dress. They wear headscarves, trousers, and tunics that look for all the world like mini-skirts. These forms are said by the clever secularists to be designed to make women less attractive to men. They don't! Indeed it is a reflection on Western men that they can't find women attractive unless they are half naked. As for the men, are they not also covered from collar to toe?

In Lebanon I was told many times that the impetus for wearing the Muslim headscarf came from the girls. It was a kind of revolutionary statement. It often bothered the parents in the "you can't go out dressed like that" sort of way.

I found the sexual morality of the Christians and the religious Jews to be pretty well the same as that of the Muslims. Nonetheless an awful lot of sex happens. The difference is that in Palestine they prefer to bring children into the world within a safe and organized structure—the extended family and the clan.

I am what I am and not much can be done about that. But I could happily live in God-loving Palestine or Syria or Lebanon. I would be more than happy never to set foot in the secular freedom of England again.

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