Hazel McHaffie

fanaticism

The price of fanaticism

Following on from Educated (which I reviewed three weeks ago), I was recommended to read Unfollow which tracks the life of Megan Phelps-Roper, the third of eleven children, brought up in the infamous  Westboro Baptist Church, raised to uphold extreme religious views, and take part in public condemnation of everyone outside their community. Though they’re a family of well-educated lawyers, they become ‘the most hated family in America’, but the more vilified and persecuted by the world they are, the better pleased they become: it just demonstrates that they’re indeed chosen by God as his beloved. They and they alone are right; other churches are misguided ‘social clubs’ destined for perdition.

Reading it was not a good experience! I had to force myself to persevere.

The echoes of Tara’s experience in Educated soon began to ring ominously. Saturated in the doctrines of exclusivity and condemnation … terror that the evil within would bar them from God and his people for ever … re-writing history to suit the family’s image … a public show of piety and extreme zeal for God; a different story behind the scenes … an obsessive concern to show a united front within the fold; ready to cast to the dogs anyone who dared to leave it … accountable to no one outside their fences … Uncomfortable reading indeed. And I think, the more so because this family are educated intelligent men and women.

This text, they believe, was made for them and them alone:
But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged on no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.

Watching this young girl, fortified by direct Biblical quotes, glorying in condemning all homosexuals, Jews, Mother Theresa, Princess Diana, the Swedish royal family, and her own deserting brother; revelling in the collapse of the Twin Towers and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in the 2004 tsunami; organising picketing at the funerals of young soldiers; chilled me to the bone. But she’s implacably set for the defence of the gospel, believing utterly in her myopic picture of a murderous and cruel and wrathful God, who’s bent on humiliation and punishment.

Clearly, the whole world was deceived – but we weren’t. How lucky we were to have the favor of God.

But the brutal elements of their way of life tell a different story, and Megan starts to connect the violence of her mother and grandfather with the church’s attitude to the suffering of outsiders. They actually rejoice at the demise of those people, their total destruction. And violence was how you taught obedience.

Then a lawsuit is filed against them for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, arising from one of many funerals they picketed (a Marine in Maryland). Their response? To pray for the Lord to kill the father of that dead Marine and the lawyers filing the complaint! You couldn’t make it up, could you? Megan herself has her first serious wobble, questioning the behaviour she’s called to support. She’s twenty years old. But the multimillion-dollar judgement against them is eventually overturned at appeal, and they head in a ‘spirit of triumphalism and invulnerability’, for the United States Supreme Court – the highest in the land. It’s now 2010.

The level of insensitivity and obscene ridicule of others’ finer feelings, beggars belief, and yet Megan says she loved it, so confident was she that she was doing the Lord’s work. She travelled far and wide propagating the church’s message against gays, Jews, schools, Muslims, the Grammys, the Oscars … the list goes on and on.

But gradually, gradually she begins to feel sadness in response to the very tragedies her family celebrates. Her alienation is accelerated when self-appointed arrogant elders take over control of the church, making implacable demands for unquestioning obedience, showing a pernicious need for superiority and control, imposing draconian rules, punishing viciously former stalwarts and linchpins. And when her own relatives become the hapless victims, feeling their pain, she at last recognises, with horrifying clarity, that they had all been behaving in this way to outsiders. In humility and shame she realises their church, far from hand selected by God, are completely deluded and fallible people.

Doubts multiply, troublesome questions besiege her. She faces a terrible choice. But, after a lifetime in the protective embrace of family and church, how could she wrench herself away and face the hostile world she has consistently vilified? Whether she leaves or stays her prospects are bleak.

But increasingly she sees the arrogance and incomprehensibility of her former position:
the Bible was written thousands of years ago in languages no one speaks anymore … and somehow, Westboro alone has figured out its one true meaning?… Coming face-to-face with my arrogance, aggressive in its misplaced certainty, was a special sort of shame.

When she issues a public statement decrying her former life and affiliation to Westboro, and later, when she actually meets those she decried, she’s staggered by the generosity of spirit that forgives her and reaches out in friendship and compassion.

It wasn’t the desire for an easy life that led me to leave (my family). Losing them was the price of honesty. A shredded heart for a quiet conscience.

A searingly honest account of the price of fanaticism. And a sobering reflection given what such obsessive arrogance is wreaking in the world today. The redeeming feature is that Megan has made it her mission since to do all she can to be a vocal and empathic advocate for the very people she was taught to despise.

 

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Turkish delight? Not so much.

Way back in 2017 I read my first novel by much-garlanded Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red. It was shortly after I’d visited Turkey myself, and I reviewed it on this blog.
Verdict? Brilliant and well worth the time spent.
I’ve just read a second one of his: Snow, which I bought on the strength of the first experience.
Verdict? Much harder work and not so gripping.
However, I’m game for a challenge, so I persevered through this labyrinthine story, all 436 pages of tiny font, densely packed, precise, slow moving prose.

Journalist and poet, Ka, has travelled to a mountainous border city called Kars – one of the poorest and most overlooked corners of Turkey – ostensibly to investigate an epidemic of suicides amongst young women. He is both shocked and frightened by the manner of deaths: abruptly, without ritual or warning, in the midst of their everyday routines, one minute jostling normally with siblings or playing with babies, the next lying dead from shotguns or pills or nooses. The speed and efficiency of the deaths convinces him that they had been carrying suicidal thoughts around with them for some time.  But why?

Local reaction is powerful. Posters proclaim: Human beings are God’s masterpieces and suicide is blasphemy. Pamphlets are circulated. Such is the sensitivity around this issue that Ka himself is offered police protection. As he unravels attitudes and mores underpinning both religion and atheism, Ka also writes poems that come to him in blinding flashes – a significant development after a very fallow period in his creative energies.

He’s also looking for answers to his own existential questions. He’s searching for a God who doesn’t ask me to take off my shoes in His presence, and who doesn’t make me fall to my knees to kiss people’s hands. I want a God who understands my need for solitude. But he knows this is dangerous territory and is highly sensitive to the threat on all sides.

The story wanders into some pretty serious territory: the existence of God, why are we here, the problem of suffering, life after death, the importance of headscarves, religious fanaticism, media ethics … But the author, Pamuk himself, describes the heart of the story thus:
How much can we ever know about the love and pain in another’s heart? How much can we hope to understand those who have suffered deeper anguish, greater deprivation and more crushing disappointments than we ourselves have known? Even if the world’s rich and powerful should ever try to put themselves in the shoes of the rest, how much would they really understand the wretched millions suffering around them?

Maybe, after all, the right book to read in this second week of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, where we see such grave inequalities exposed between ‘the rich and powerful’ and ‘the wretched millions’.

It’s a fact universally acknowledge that I rarely have more than one book on the go at once. Simple mind! So, it’s probably a measure of the density of this particular novel that I dipped into two others in the time it took to complete it. My companion on a long train journey – Deadly Decisions by Kathy Reichsrequired no effort or analysis, and was pure mindless distraction during a time of significant mental and emotional turmoil. A more serious alternative to Snow was Lies Lies Lies! by Michael Green, which looks at claims against Christianity. It provided a fascinating contrast with the religious bigotry and fanaticism within the Muslim world in Turkey depicted in Pamuk’s novel.

 

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Wigtown 2021 revisited

Continued from last week …

Yep, the rest of my Wigtown Book Festival experience this year lived up to expectation.

Fiona Sampson – poet cum biographer – was commendably animated and enthusiastic, and impressively fluent about her subject: the life and times of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a contemporary of Dickens. Indeed, she gave such detailed and comprehensive responses that the chairperson, Lee Randall, several times found her questions pre-empted, but Lee kept pace brilliantly, and maintained her usual sangfroid, steering the event beautifully. The title of the book under discussion, Two Way Mirror,  comes from the author’s belief that Barrett Browning’s work is both a mirror for her life and a mirror for us today. It’s 30 years since a biography last came out on this canonical figure, and Sampson has exploded a few myths about her, explaining why she has been devalued and misrepresented. She maintains that, in spite of EBB’s constant ill health, and the constraints on women of her era, she was actually strong and wilful, a driven perfectionist, clever and precocious, exhibiting a highly developed social conscience from the age of 6, even though her education was limited to listening in to lessons from her brother’s tutor, and despite her own family’s wealth being built on slave trading. Through her written work she changed what society thought about child labour, rape, poverty, women, slavery. A  laudable legacy indeed.

Journalist, author and broadcaster, Sarfraz Mazoor rounded off my time with writers in Wigtown this year and he didn’t disappoint. Weaving together history, reportage and memoir, in his book, They: What Muslims and Non-Muslims Get Wrong about Each Other, Manzoor journeyed around Britain in search of the roots of the feelings about Muslims in this country. He is himself a Pakistani Muslim married to a white British woman, with two daughters who straddle races and cultures, so it’s unsurprising that his personal story is woven through his account. He explores the doubts and fears that are sometimes peddled about violence and fanaticism and radicalisation; religion and ethnicity; education and religious illiteracy; socialising and separation; the price to be paid for a liberal attitude; the clash of tradition and modern thinking. He doesn’t shy away from difficult issues – sexual exploitation, misogyny, homosexuality, arranged marriages, anti-semitism. They is also Manzoor’s search for a more positive future, for hope and inspiration, for a more tolerant faith, more progressive attitudes, and that search took him to heart-warming stories of people doing good deeds, leading to a conclusion that we all have it within ourselves to make things better, to build bridges across the chasm of mutual mistrust. They is the story of modern, Muslim Britain, the migrant experience told from both sides, both deeply personal and a challenge to all who have attributed to religion things that shouldn’t be laid at its door.

Reviewing the sessions I attended, I’m struck by the common theme: how can we make society a better place?; how can we cultivate goodness and altruism and kindness? I didn’t consciously choose them for that reason, but it’s a reflection of my own biases. Huge thanks again to Wigtown Book Festival for a brilliant programme and some very thought-provoking events that will continue to challenge long after the tents have folded and the speakers returned to their everyday walking-around lives.

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Turkish delight

‘I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well.’

How’s that for an opening line? Brilliant, isn’t it? And the first paragraph sucks you in still further:

‘Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below. As I fell, my head, which he’d smashed with a stone, broke apart; my face, my forehead and cheeks, were crushed; my bones shattered, and my mouth filled with blood.’

Wow! Who … where … why … what … how …? More please.

I’ve been to Turkey where this beautiful calligraphy was created for me personally by a talented artist just a stone’s throw from the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The whole experience was utterly fascinating, so I’ve been keen to read something by the much garlanded Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, and what better book than one about calligraphers in Istanbul! It just needed a decent slot of time without too many other distractions – it’s over 500 pages of dense small print. Imagine translating something that long! Hats off to Professor Erdağ Göknar who I imagine is often forgotten; his command of English has to be exceptional.

First then, the official blurb about My Name is Red to give you an overview: it’s the late 1590s …

‘The Sultan secretly commissions a great book: a celebration of his life and the Ottoman Empire, to be illuminated by the best artists of the day – in the European manner. In Istanbul at a time of violent fundamentalism, however, this is a dangerous proposition. Even the illustrious circle of artists are not allowed to know for whom they are working. But when one of the miniaturists is murdered, their Master has to seek outside help. Did the dead painter fall victim to professional rivalry, romantic jealousy or religious terror?
With the Sultan demanding an answer within three days, perhaps the clue lies somewhere in the half-finished pictures . . .’

The now-dead man, Elegant Effendi as he is known, is one of the select few responsible for painting and embellishing books – illuminating the edges of pages, the borders – in Our Sultan’s workshop under the eagle eye of the Head Illuminator, Master Osman. Elegant is an undisputed master of his craft. But he has now been missing for four days, and his fellow miniaturists – Butterfly, Stork and Olive – are the prime suspects. The question is, which one? And why? Was the motive professional, romantic or religious? The man asking the questions, Effendi Black, is also pursuing his own love interests in delicate and difficult circumstances (his lady love, Shekure’s husband is missing in action not yet declared dead, and her father-in-law and brother-in-law are exerting a lot of pressure on her to stay within their family where she will in all probability become a sexual and domestic slave) giving the book a feeling of subtle layers and stories within stories which necessitate keeping all your wits about you to retain a firm hold on all the threads. Added to that, each chapter is written in the first person by a range of different players (20 in total) in this drama – not all of them human – so we know a great deal about motives and actions and dreams from all sides.

My Name is Red is at once a murder mystery and a meditation on love, artistic devotion, religious conviction, and the tensions between East and West. Tall order, huh? It has the ring of a long involved parable designed to explore deep truths – albeit in the Muslim rather than Christian tradition.

‘Allah created this worldly realm the way an intelligent seven-year-old boy would want to see it; what’s more Allah created this worldly realm so that, above all, it might be seen. Afterward, He provided us with words so that we might share and discuss with one another what we’ve seen.’

Sight/blindness, time/infinity, books/paintings are all recurring symbols.

‘Wherever the blind miniaturist’s memories reach Allah there reigns an absolute silence, a blessed darkness and the infinity of the blank page.
Blindness is a realm of bliss from which the Devil and guilt are barred.’

Europeans are ‘infidels‘ and their beliefs and practices are abhorrent to these people. They must take great care not to be tainted by such influences. So, it’s necessary for us to understand the strict rules laid down in the ‘Glorious Koran’ prohibiting the representation of the human image; divine will forbids ‘objects that mimic mankind’ and thus ‘compete with Allah’s creations’. Women’s faces must not be seen outside the family.

The writing is lyrical (thanks to both author and translator), the concepts deep and rich giving much to ponder. The minute detail Pamuk invests in this work, the delicate and subtle descriptions, seem in a way to reflect the exquisitely fine artistry of the illustrations demanded by the sultans, refined by the masters, every stroke given importance and meaning; a combination of inspiration, talent and patience. Though this level of minutiae makes the book long and complex, it needs to be savoured slowly, each idea given due weight – the fine line between right and wrong, good and evil, reality and fantasy, truth and lies, marriage and divorce, beauty and ugliness, life and death.

‘Before my birth there was infinite time, and after my death, inexhaustible time. I never thought of it before: I’d been living luminously between two eternities of darkness.’

It might be expected that these highly sensitive artists working for the Sultan would lead cossetted and protected lives, surrounded as they are by fabulous art and sumptuous wealth. Not so. The master binders and calligraphers whose ‘brushes made horses gallop at full speed and whose butterflies fluttered off the page‘ have suffered for their art. Their lives are fiercely controlled.

‘Only true artists like us who’d suffered throughout our apprenticeships merciless bastinados, random pummelings and fists so that the irritable master who drew a line incorrectly might feel better – not to mention hours of blows from sticks and rulers so that the devil within us would perish to be reborn as the jinn of inspiration – only we could feel such extreme joy by depicting bastinados and tortures,only we could color these implements with the gaiety of coloring a child’s kite.’

Perspectives and insights are the product of this upbringing. And over time, when these apprentices in turn become experts, and then masters themselves, with experience and the study of tomes of illustrations painted over hundreds of years, they come to possess a special kind of knowledge and understanding.

‘I came to know which artist had learned what from whom, in which workshop under which shah’s patronage the thing we now call ‘style’ first took shape, which fabled master had worked for whom, and how, for example, the curling Chinese clouds I knew had spread throughout Persia from Herat under Chinese influence were also used in Kazvin … but an agony lurked deeper within me, a melancholy and regret I can scarcely share with you for the belittled, tormented, pretty, moon-faced, gazelle-eyed, sapling thin painters – battered by masters – who suffered for their art, yet remained full of excitement and hope, enjoying the affection that developed between them and their masters and their shared love of painting, before succumbing to anonymity and blindness after long years of toil.’

For generations, for centuries, these rare skills have been taught in secret using vicious means of control and submission; rivalry, jealousy and backstabbing the norm. But when these highly specialised workmen fall victim to bitter fighting amongst the ruling and political classes, they become ‘penniless and destitute, homeless and bereft’, their rarefied world collapses, and in consequence ‘rapidly transcribed, hastily painted, cheap books appeared everywhere, matching the tastes of common soldiers, boorish pashas and spoiled princes’.

‘Just as the doors of houses are closed of an evening and the city is left in darkness, painting was also abandoned.’

New priorities, different jealousies emerge.

Having myself watched Dervishes whirling, and visited the Hagia Sophia, stared at the priceless jewels plundered from vanquished enemies, sailed on the Bosphorus, smelled the spices of the great souks, and been woken by the muezzin call to prayer, I could readily picture the scenes: Istanbul, the portraits of the Sultans, the fabulous Ottoman wealth. Without that experience I rather think I’d have struggled to understand the culture, the history, the nuances in this unusual and complex tale.

Seen through the eyes of artists used to precision, beauty and painstaking execution, the story has a poignancy, subtlety and depth of its own. Perhaps the narration itself has to aim for a pinnacle of perfection to be worthy of its message.

‘There was a time when Allah looked upon the world in all its uniqueness, and believing in the beauty of what he saw, bequeathed his creation to us, his servants. The duty of illustrators and of those who, loving art, gaze upon the world, is to remember the magnificence that Allah beheld and left to us. The greatest master in each generation of painters, expending their lives and toiling until blind, strove with great effort and inspiration to attain and record the wondrous dream that Allah commanded us to see. Their work resembled Mankind recalling his own golden memories from the very beginning.’

‘… shahs with a weakness for gold and power always forget: The world’s beauty belongs to Allah.’

But through the esoteric world of these master-craftsmen we come to better understand fanaticism, how men can be driven to commit heinous crimes for their beliefs no matter how suspect the foundations of their conviction may be to an outsider. Salutary lessons for today, methinks.

 

 

 

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