The Sudan Imperative

by R.  Joseph Hoffmann



In 1993, the United States designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism – a distinction currently shared by just six other countries, including Iran and Syria.

With Sudan still in his sights, President Clinton on 20 August 1998, ordered a Cruise missile attack on the al-Shifa Pharmaceutical Plant in Khartoum.  The pretext for the strikes launched by the United States military was retaliation for the truck bomb attacks on its embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya on 7 August, 1998.  Specifically, the Clinton administration alleged that the al-Shifa plant was involved with processing the deadly nerve agent VX and had ties with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network–believed to be behind the embassy bombings and a larger terrorist plot labeled “Bojinka.”

Also on 20 August, missiles hit al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, where bin Laden and his closest advisors had migrated. By the time Clinton ordered the attack, bin Laden had been expelled from Sudan by President Omar al-Bashir’s order: Sudan, which had previously and unsuccessfully sued for normal relations with the United States, became the only Middle Eastern country to deport him. When eventually he was discovered and killed, he had been given refuge in Pakistan for a period of at least eight years, without serious consequence to US-Pakistani relations.


Why was the United States Administration fixated on the al-Shifa Pharmaceutical plant while the CIA was focused on possible links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, links that proved illusory and did not involve the production of deadly chemical weapons?  Timothy Noah writing in Slate   said, “The best guess … is set forth in an October 1998 piece by the murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Pearl suggested that a man named Mubarak Fadl Al Mahdi put the word out that Al-Shifa was mixed up with chemical weapons in order to hurt the plant’s owner, Salah Idris, who was a political enemy of Mahdi’s. Mahdi admitted to Pearl that he’d made it his business to collect information about the plant after Idris bought it. Pearl further reported that after the bombing, Mahdi issued a communiqué that said Al-Shifa had harbored ‘Iraqi scientists and technicians’ and that most pharmaceutical plants in Sudan weren’t ‘manned by foreign experts.’ (Mahdi denied having said anything about this before the bombing, and U.S. intelligence officials denied that they’d relied on anyone with a motive to hurt Idris.)”

In the fraught anti-terrorist environment of the period between August 1998 and 11 September 2001, Iraq and al- Qaeda were often linked in the intelligence imagination of the United States.  This remained true even after the attacks of 9-11, when the dubious but repeated assertion of Iraq’s involvement in making “weapons of mass destruction,” including VX and other nerve agents, served as a pretext for the invasion of that country and the overthrow of its military leader Saddam Hussein.  After 9/11, Noam Chomsky equated  the Al-Shifa bombing with the toppling of the World Trade Center towers, an act of wanton, premeditated violence against a soft target costing hundreds of lives. The comparison was lost in the emotionally volatile period after the destruction of the World Trade centre, but the irony of the events was not missed in parts of the Middle East.

Yet the failure of investigators to discover any evidence of CW production during any of the period of US involvement in Iraq through 2011 did not cause the United States government under presidents Bush or Obama to revisit the stated reason for the destruction of the al-Shifa medical facility or rethink alleged, and by all accounts strained, connections between the government of Iraq under Saddam Hussein and that of  Sudan under Omar al-Bashir, both of whom opposed (and had reason to fear) the Islamic extremism represented by Osama bin Laden’s cartels.    While there is every reason to suppose bin Laden was behind the attacks on the African embassies, it is equally clear that Sudan had no role to play and remained docile in its relations to other African nations and also in relation to “rogue” countries like Libya, a traditional ally and benefactor of Sudan.  As late as November of 2001, four years after the al Shifa attack,  John Bolton, then U.S. Undersecretary of State, announced at the BTWC in Geneva that the United States was ”concerned about Sudan’s growing interest” in biological weapons, and suggested Sudan was among five nations believed to be pursuing  germ warfare.


In 1997, former US President Bill Clinton had issued an executive order that imposed a comprehensive trade embargo on Sudan and froze its assets in the US. In 2006, Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, issued another executive order targeting those involved in the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region. The sanctions have continued unabated and were renewed for a further year in November 2015 under the Obama administration.

There is little likelihood that they will be lifted in the lifespan of a Donald Trump presidency, given his inattentiveness, his lack of perspective on the region, and his malice for Muslims in general. Trump’s tendency so far has been to personalize Islamic violence:  He has, variously, suggested imposing a ban on Muslims travelling to America, advocated ethnic and religious profiling, and registration of Muslims living in the United States. Mr. Trump calls this “hyper-vetting” but by any other name it creates a religious test for lawful immigration and a blockade against legal residency and citizenship that it clearly a violation of the United Sates Constitution.  Given Trump’s almost complete ignorance of Islam as a religion, his dismal sense of geography, history, politics, and culture, and his overreliance on military advisors, it is too much to expect that he would listen to a case for lifting sanctions when it has not been high on the agenda of any president since Clinton imposed them in 1997


Was There Ever a Case for Sanctions

According to an article in Huffington Post by Esther Sprague of a pro-sanction religious organization called “Sudan Unlimited,”entitled Understanding Sudan and US sanctions, the penalties were created to bring Sudan president Omar al Bashir’s regime to heel for its oppressive policies towards his citizens and his use of the militias to quell disturbances and maintain order:  “Bashir’s objectives are three-fold,” she writes, “to maintain control of Sudan at all costs; to steal the resources of the country for his benefit and for the benefit of his narrow base of supporters and allies; and to change the multicultural identity of Sudan into a single Arab Islamic identity. Bashir has partially accomplished his objectives since seizing power in 1989 by instituting a policy of divide and rule among Sudan’s diverse population that has allowed him to use the people of Sudan to kill and displace each other, freeing up resources for exploitation and land for occupation by Arab allies; by marginalizing and disempowering indigenous populations; and through massive corruption that has destroyed the state while enriching the foreign bank accounts of a select few.”  According to Sprague, even though she styles sanctions an “imperfect weapon,”  “financial and economic pressure are the only language Bashir is likely to understand.”  Curiously, she thinks the majority of Sudanese recognize this and despite economic grievances (felt in all quarters—from banking to corner markets and medical supplies)—she feels continued pressure is the best and only way: “In order for Bashir to maintain a grip on the country, he must keep his supporters happy or at least well compensated, which is proving harder to do as Sudan’s economy continues to constrict as a result of the implementation of sanctions, largely led by the United States. This continued pressure is welcome news for the majority of Sudanese people, who have asked for these economic measures to be taken in order to help create change that ultimately may provide more of an opportunity for the Sudanese people and future generations to enjoy justice, peace and prosperity.”  Sprague’s risible suggestion–that the cure for hardship  is a longer period of hardship–is belied by the fact, verified in a series of United Nations reports and anecdotal observations from visitors to Sudan,  that the longer the sanctions last the more tenacious the suffering faced by ordinary Sudanese becomes.

A more measured approach is taken by Ahmed Saeed in Al Jazeera. Sayeed properly notes that the sanctions were originally imposed to stop Sudan sponsoring terrorism. He cites the visit of the United Nations Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy who concluded that the measures are failing to accomplish their objectives: “The reality on the ground has proved that these measures do not have a negative impact on officials or on any elite group,” Jazairy wrote after his visit, following US extension of sanctions on 3rd November 2015.”Their full impact is on innocent citizens and on a deepening of the gap in income distribution within the Sudanese society and between provinces.”  Rabie Abd Alaatie, a member of the NCP’s leadership office, said the sanctions have also affected Sudan’s imports. “The foreign currency reserve is very scarce due to the sanctions. This affects the importation of goods, sometimes vital commodities such as wheat…The comprehensive trade embargo is the set of measures which are affecting the lives of the Sudanese citizens. They have so far not been able to serve the purpose of modifying the policies of the government of Sudan, but have for sure affected many regular people’s ability to conduct business, transfer money, and go about regular everyday life activities.”

The Evidence is Against Sanctions

It is simple logic and history, where sanctions are concerned, that misery trickles downward to ordinary people while wealth stays at the top. Leadership groups and elites, and the clients who protect them, weather the storm of economic hardship better than ordinary citizens.  Unlike warfare, where civilian populations are targets of last resort, sanctions are aimed at governments in order to cause as little collateral damage as possible.  But the idea that sanctions work, given a long enough time to bite, is folly—whether we look at the case of Cuba, North Korea, Syria, or Iran.  Governments control economies, distribute both goods and services, and control banks and trade.  The use of the phrase “well-targeted sanctions” does little to change the fact that sanctions will end up hurting economic “civilians” while financial elites and leaders will find ways (and can find ways) to avoid the most difficult aspects of embargoes and currency restrictions.

This being so, there is both a pragmatic and a humanitarian argument for ending the embargo of Sudanese goods and the currency and trade restrictions now in place against the Republic of Sudan. As Doug Bandow has written in his Forbes magazine article on the subject, the sanctions, like the dog in the Conan Doyle story, doesn’t bark.  The pragmatic reason is ineffectiveness.  The humanist reason consists in consequences to the people of the Sudan, where in some areas the poverty rate runs to 50 percent.

Moreover, if counter-terrorism is measured in statistics, then Washington can claim the sanctions have done their job and lift them: Since 9/11 the administration’s latest terrorism reports have consistently stated: “During the past year, the government of Sudan continued to support counterterrorism operations to counter threats to U.S. interests and personnel in Sudan.”  And Sudan has been moving closer to America’s alliance partners in the Middle East—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf States. In Libya, Khartoum has shifted its support from Islamist to Western-backed forces. Sudan has historically been friendly to the United States, while the United States has adopted a much more proprietary stance towards Sudan since the accession of Omar al-Bashir in 1989.

The rationale for sanctions as a penalty for the government’s ethnic wars has also largely disappeared: If Darfur to the west is still occasionally restive, a peace agreement with southern Sudanese ultimately was reached, leading to the formation of the Republic of South Sudan, which has recently been in the news for its own civil war.  The trouble in South Sudan casts a backward light on Sudan’s attempts to quell disturbances prior to the partitioning of the country. Yet South Sudan enjoyed the immediate favour of the United States while Sudan itself was given no credit in the process and left out in the economic cold.


The separate insurgency in Sudan’s west, around Darfur, starting in 2003 led to the indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court. But the Darfur conflict is slowly subsiding. Moreover, as Colum Lynch has written in Foreign Policy, the sanctions proved totally worthless, and some would say counterproductive, as a mechanism to discipline the government during the worst days of the crisis in 2011.  The charges of corruption, and the indictment of Bashir by the ICC,  are very weak grounds for the continuation of sanctions, especially as the court’s decision is opposed by the African Union, League of Arab States, Non-Aligned Movement, and the governments of Russia and China.  Moreover, Bashir’s popularity in the country actually swelled following the ICC judgement,  in a classic Us versus Them scenario– the result of the isolation and self-protective reflexivity that sanctions have aroused in the population.

Hurting Minorities as Well as the Majority

Sudan has been labeled a “Country of Particular Concern” by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, yet religious discrimination and repression is far more pronounced in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both of which the United States counts as allies. American Christians are among the loudest advocates of a continued sanctions regime in Sudan whilst Sudanese Christians are almost unanimous in their dislike of them:  Says Rev. Filotheos Farag of Khartoum’s El Shahidein Coptic Church, “we want to cancel all the sanctions.” Uninformed about the comparatively small Coptic, orthodox, protestant,  Roman Catholic-Christian presences in the country (about 3,000,000, now mainly in South Sudan) the Christians on the other side of the world are largely of an evangelical-missionary type and unaware of the complexity of the religious dynamics in the country. While all non-elite Sudanese are disadvantaged by the embargo, the small Christian community is affected disproportionately and Sudanese Christians complain that they are among those most hurt by sanctions. This is because many churches depend on donations which cannot be transferred easily in hard currency: supplies are hard to buy, replacement costs, furnishing and basic necessities for churches are difficult to locate and to purchase.

A consistent message from Christian  clerics like Hafiz Fassha, an Evangelical Presbyterian pastor at the Evangelical Church of Khartoum North, is that the pain is felt among “marginal populations, especially in medical services and education.”  He prays for the lifting of controls, which “are like putting oil on a fire.”  Isaiah Kanani of the Presbyterian Nile Theological College reported that “sanctions are affecting everyone in the community in every corner of the country.” Unfortunately, “the grassroots feel it very harshly.” He points to lost jobs and people relocating for work. Moreover, while people believe the government is not responsible for these problems, their “eyes fix on the government to find a solution.”  And to the north in Port Sudan, Father Antonio Manganhe Meej observed that “Poor people feel it more…While the U.S. might believe it is punishing the government…it is only punishing the people.”  Meej concluded glumly that when parents aren’t able to pay their school fees “it is becoming impossible to run our schools.”

Lifting Sanctions is a Moral Imperative for the United States Government

U.S. sanctions have lost any purpose they once may have had. And it is not clear that the sequence of events leading to Sudan’s being classified with Iran, Syria and North Korea as a “state sponsor of terrorism” was justified when the tag was first applied in 1993.

Three times in the past two decades Sudan has appeased the United States and gotten nothing in return but a prolongation of economic hardship.

When the CIA demanded the expulsion of Osama bin Laden after the embassy bombings in East Africa,   Sudan complied.  The United States countered that what it had really wanted was his extradition.  When the United States demanded stricter anti-terrorist measures within the borders of Sudan, Sudan increased surveillance and counter-terrorism operations to become, virtually,  the only terror-free zone in the immediate region—which includes Somalia,  Eritrea, Kenya, and Djibouti.  When the United States complained about excessively harsh and in some cases lethal measures against ethnic minorities in Darfur and minority religious and ethnic groups in the South, Sudan negotiated to partition the south and accept its existence as a separate state, South Sudan. Since these measures were taken, Darfur has become less restive and South Sudan has emerged as Africa’s newest country, though one beset by the same turbulence that characterized it before the partitioning.  The government in Khartoum, as most observers now recognize   is hardly responsible for the tribalist, ethnic and religious fractures in that society.

The United States since the Indian Wars has developed an ugly reputation for breaking treaties and backtracking on contacts and promises. But Sudan is a particularly ugly case of American deal-breaking. Ugly because it is difficult to know what now the country must do in order to appease Washington and restore economic ties.  A million voices are saying that the world has changed since sanctions were first imposed. Washington’s policy toward Sudan should change as well. As  Doug Bandow has argued in a variety of op-ed and analytical essays, “Politics today in Sudan is authoritarian, but that has never bothered Washington”—in Egypt, in Pakistan, and perhaps above all in Saudi Arabia—ironically a nation that has never been indicted as a state sponsor of terrorism. Meanwhile, it has gone to war in chaotic countries like Afghanistan and (now, due to its interventions) Iraq and Syria without being able to impose or solicit the kind of cohesion and relative tranquility that Sudan currently enjoys–without its assistance.

There will be a further consequence to United States’ indifference and callousness in Sudan:  Among the more perverse effects of sanctions has been to encourage Khartoum to look for friends elsewhere. State Minister Yahia Hussein Babiker has said that we are “starting to get most of our heavy equipment through China.” Chinese guests, businessmen, dealers, and workers are a common sight in Khartoum and hotel restaurants offering Chinese dishes (like the “Panda Restaurant” ) are expanding in all parts of the capital.  China is in Africa to stay—just as, sitting in my University study in Hangzhou, Africa, in the form of exchange students and guests, is in China.

The United States should not expect Sudan to hold its breath as the sanctions-regime unravels pointlessly and as Sudan becomes yet another in China’s long and growing list of bilateral trading partners and new best friends.  An enlightened Washington would have seen it coming.  But the real-world Washington is a very poor beacon of commonsense and a poor guardian of its own economic self-interest.



Paradigmatic Unsuitability: An Indictment of Donald J. Trump


READERS of this page will know that I don’t do editorials.   I do essays, sometimes long and turgid essays, on things that interest me, matter to me, worry me.

That is why I am playing against type and writing a short op-ed on Donald Trump.

I am deeply worried about something that everyone has said, and most have believed, but now  in the wake of media “normalization” activity and legitimation maneuvers we are in danger of forgetting.  After all, just as the media got simply everything wrong about the election, including the outcome, they persist in persisting to think that they can create a new narrative and a new frame for a man who by any normal measure comes up small and short. That “something” is that Mr Trump is unfit for office.

Some additional thoughts are printed at Ophelia Benson’s lovely site, Butterflies and Wheels, concerning Trump’s boneheadedness about China and what makes a country “great.” Despite Trump’s victory chat to Presidents Xi and Putin (within minutes of his election) China in the person of its environment minister Liu Zhen Min had the good sense to remind Trump that his claim that China “made up” global warming and thus could disappear it (while the US went on its merry coal-burning, carbon spewing way) was a gross fiction.  Not an encouraging start to being being best buddies down the road,where deal-making handshakes and back-slaps aren’t a substitute for real policies that affect real people in a non-virtual world.

This little screed is short and painful. It rests on a simple premise. Just as no one on the Democratic side managed to say that Trump’s definition of greatness was an absurdity because it was nothing more than a crabbed and nostalgic vision of little America, they also never managed to come up with a coherent list of reasons supporting the unfit-to-govern meme they tried to sell, preferring instead to itemize his daily wowsers, tweets and untruths as though the American people are smart enough to judge for themselves and can make the distinction between moral reprobacy and an email server. But as we know from the outcome,  they can’t.

The coalition of supremacists, gun-lovers and their wives, Hillary-haters and their husbands, low intelligence (it isn’t really only information they lack, is it?) voters who really think the future is with dirty coal and more oil, and Evangelical hicks who love reprobates because Jesus loves to forgive them–that coalition took the gold.  They took it to be sure by 1,000,000+ votes short of a majority.  But in America, in our inviolable constitutional system, that is close enough to call a win a win.  It is why for the second time in less than twenty years the winner has lost the general election.

But that, as Parson Thwackum might say, is crumbs.

I don’t know what unfit for office really means.  In a matter of weeks, the president -designate may well be indicted and convicted of a crime.  That would indeed be a crisis because the Constitution doesn’t have a successor-role for an uninaugurated vice president-elect. I savour the possibility of that crisis, but I think the just deserts will come after a year.

Instead, let me push for the phrase  “paradigmatically unsuitable” to describe Mr Trump. By that I mean not someone who is temperamentaly unfit to govern or have nuclear codes in his corset, but someone who epitomizes in his words, and deeds, and person the antithesis of those qualities that women and men since the founding of the Republic have identified with being suitable for high office . Not virtue.  Not even intelligence, really. Quality.

Donald J. Trump is paradigmatically unsuitable for the Presidency –

  • Because our children will be learning, in the normal course of their secondary and college education, science facts that he rejects–global warming and evolution being only the most conspicuous of these facts
  • Because minorities and the vulnerable  will be subjected to policies based on white paranoia
  • Because he does not know the world at even a sophomore  level–befriending China and Russia and quarantining Iran, whose doors are open to business with Iran and investment in Iran
  • Because he supports tyrants like Assad and Erdogan and cannot take a principled stance about terror-exporting nations like Saudi Arabia
  • Because he thinks a repeated or undetected lie is  a truth
  • Because he is carnal and disgusting in his view of women
  • Because he claims to be smart and isn’t, religious and isn’t, compassionate and isn’t; because it is impossible to know the difference between what he believes and what he  speaks
  • Because he has no coherent  view of American priorities in space, medical research, technology, trade, social progress, or national direction
  • Because he does understand the Constitution and regards the Supreme Court as tool of ideological advantage
  • Because he will not defend the arts and humanities and regards them as superfluous and merely decorative
  • Because he does not think health-care is a right
  • Because he considers federal assistance to the needy an extravagance, while the rich pay no taxes
  • Because he is probably guilty of crimes and certainly guilty of moral lapses.

No leader can be a perfect model for citizens to follow. But no leader should be elected because a mob in an iconoclastic frenzy choose change at any cost, and in that frenzy choose the man that most resembles their unworthy, reprehensible, paradigmatically unsuitable selves.

Donald Trump’s Imaginary Band

Post-convention repeat

The New Oxonian


When Professor Harold Hill comes to River City, Iowa, to start a marching band he encounters a group of stubborn locals who don’t cotton to strangers but do like music. They have a barbershop quartet, a music teacher, a library whose benefactor mysteriously left the books to the librarian and the building to the city council, and  a long tradition of prescribed charity, marked by being willing to help, without really loving, one’s neighbour.

Harold Hill is a flim-flam man, a character in American  letters that goes back to folklore and the tall tales of frontier humour and reaches its apex in the story of the Duke and Dauphin in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. (Even the Wizard in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz is a  moral version of the species) They are frauds and hucksters pitting their wits against the dull denizens of  the flat, dull central and prairie states, and they are riverboat gamblers and snake oil salesmen…

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The Death of the Curé of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray


“All our religion is but a false religion, and all our virtues are mere illusions and we ourselves are only hypocrites in the sight of God, if we have not that universal charity for everyone – for the good, and for the bad, for the poor and for the rich, and for all those who do us harm.”  St Jean-Marie Vianney, the Curé of Ars.

Father Jacques Hamel, an auxiliary priest appointed to the parish of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, was celebrating morning mass on Tuesday when two men barged into the church, seized the old man, forced him to his knees and slit his throat. They then said prayers in Arabic while circumambulating the altar, in a charade of Catholic liturgy, and one preached a short sermon from the ambo.

It is another episode in the ongoing attempt by ISIS to produce ever-more grotesque warnings to unbelievers that their brand of Islam still believes in seventh-century forms of sacrifice and talion as the price of unbelief. Beheadings, mass execution, dismemberment, burning, and vivisepulture are all on their menu. Human sacrifice is an innovation—so new that French authorities who have provided security to mosques and synagogues had not thought to do the same for the ancestral faith.  After all, who would kill a country priest at the altar?

Following spasms of violence by self-radicalized IS  “soldiers” in Nice, Munich and Orlando, this latest episode seems to differ only in the mechanism of death.  If IS measures its success in body counts and damage done, this appears to be a relatively modest example of its outreach.

But that is the wrong way to see this event.

Like many European countries, France prides itself on being “post-Christian”: secular and pluralistic.  Its indifference to religion is more pro-active than its neighbours’–extending to rules against the wearing of hijab and other displays considered offensive to the spirit of the Republic.  To Rome, France is the “eldest daughter of the Church.”  But its ecclesiastical privilege has to be shared with a tradition of hostility towards religion exemplified in the writings of Voltaire, Diderot, and above all Paul-Henrl Thiry, (Baron d’Holbach) who wrote in 1769,

“Religion has ever filled the mind of man with darkness, and kept him in ignorance of his real duties and true interest. It is only by dispelling the clouds and phantoms of Religion, that we shall discover Truth, Reason, and Morality. Religion diverts us from the causes of evils, and from the remedies which nature prescribes; far from curing, it only aggravates, multiplies, and perpetuates them.”

The secular and revolutionary spirit that was directed against French religion in general, Catholicism especially and the Jesuits in particular, was mitigated by the Reign of Terror (1791-1793), a chapter in French cultural history that proved that excess and passion are not the sole property of religion, and that revolutionary zeal is subject to the disconfirming experience of ordinary citizens who crave peace, calm, reassurance—the things religion had traditionally offered.  This tension in French culture has been a constant from the early nineteenth century until today: A country committed to the secular, actively indifferent to religion (in a way Americans and even the British and Germans are not), but aware that French intellectual culture is shot through with the ancient remains of the one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Derrida’s deconstruction of apophatic theology is only original if one ignores the whole history of French philosophy from the time of Irenaeus of Lyons, prompting some of his contemporaries to comment that French intellectualism is immersed in religion as a fish is in water. One can flop around on dry land for a bit, but not survive there.

In the last  century and a half,  as Rome has increasingly lost its political hold on Europe and the difference between Catholics and skeptics has become a matter of inflection, Christianity (at a domestic level) has become a benign and pastoral thing. Unlike England, occasions of state in France are secular affairs.  Unlike America, the political process (until recently anyway) was largely unaffected by religion.

But that is changing, even in the political sphere. Religious commentary and Biblical references are on the rise; during the 2007 presidential campaign two of the candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, both raised as Roman Catholics, made a number of positive references to their faith.  The French media is increasingly open to asking candidates about how their religious faith affects their decision making or enriches their life.  Even on the left, anti-globalisation activist José Bové cites his indebtedness to Catholic values, and Marie-Georges Buffet, the head of the French Communist Party strongly opposes any anti-religious interpretations of French secularism.  The attitudes are broadly in harmony with the views of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, which while not advocating return to the privileged status of the Catholic church pre-1905 call for France and Europe generally to remember where it came from: that the values of peace, fraternity, and compassion are rooted in the Gospel and are part of the historical legacy of the Church.   In France, more than other places, this legacy also includes philosophy, music, the arts and distinctively French literary movements, including postmodernism and hermeneutics.

The parishioners of Saint Etienne de Rouvray probably do not care much about history or Emmanuel Levinas.  They had gathered in a safe and familiar space to celebrate a familiar rite with a trusted priest.  Mercea Eliade envisages such familiarity when he defines what is meant by a “sacred space.” An obvious example for us, he writes in The Sacred and the Profane,  is the church, whose door is a threshold between the profane on the outside and the sacred inside.  An equivalent to the church in archaic cultures was the sacred enclosure, which opened upwards towards the sky, the world of the gods.  Believers going into a church leave the world of chaos outside.  Their purposes are not practical, but to make contact with something that transcends a world where bills have to be paid, children have to be collected from school, and wages have to be earned.  For all the secularizing that has gone on in the last two centuries, many people still find the door of a church an access to an enclosure that protects them from the grim realities of everyday life.  In a word, it is where God speaks to them, consoles them, and protects them.

The IS “soldiers” who invaded this enclosure with knives drawn and who slit the throat of an 85 year old priest in the name of Allah, the greatest, the merciful, achieved something they had not yet managed to achieve:  Sacrilege. It doesn’t matter that French atheists in a Normandy village or in the city of Rouen with its magical cathedral, immortalized by Monet, don’t believe the doctrine of the Catholic church, don’t take communion, and don’t ask their children to say the rosary as their grandparents might have done. They will still understand and react to the violation of what Eliade called “the holy.”  Catholics everywhere will react viscerally to this ritual slaughter because they will remember the Church’s teaching that the priest, in a special and sacramental way, represents Christ.  And they will make the distinction between a priest sitting on a park bench reading le Figaro or zig zagging to avoid a weaponized truck in Nice who “happens” to get caught up in an act of absurd violence, and a priest exercising his office, celebrating the Eucharist while standing at the altar.

Once upon a time, we called men like Father Jacques “martyrs.”  The word simply means witnesses. We won’t do it this time, because to do so would dignify the role of his assassins as legitimate combatants rather than as violent criminals.  It would also put the Church at war with an insidious form of Islamic fundamentalism. The Pope has called the sacrifice of Father Jacques “senseless” and “absurd.”  Looked at as an act of simple violence, perhaps that’s the best way to frame it. Yet violence is never simple and never totally absurd.  For the people of France, evaluating day by day their relationship with a religiously chaotic world, the desecration of the parish of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, has significance far beyond the door of the church.



The Confraternity of Saint Charles: Random Thoughts on Darwin Devotion

In celebration of Pope Francis’s declaration to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences last month that evolution is true, this tribute to Darwin.

The New Oxonian


What does it mean to “believe” in Darwin’s theory of evolution? What would the sage himself have thought about his cult? It’s a bit like asking what Jesus would have thought about a high Mass or a Pentecostal healing service.
We are treated every year to new polls—Harris, Gallup, Pew—giving us new and conflicting statistics about how many people (read: Americans) believe in evolution. And the “correlation” between that poll and other tedious statistics—American religiosity, for example—is impossible to ignore.

So let’s just bottom line it. Many more Americans than people in other marginally civilized countries do not believe in evolution. Coming from a country that has a larger number of Nobel Laureates than some countries have tall buildings, this is shocking. Coming from a country where little Johnny can’t find America on a flat map of the world but can recite the books of the Old Testament backwards, not…

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The Myth of Christian Fundamentalism


The word “evangelical” has been used to include so many Christian groups over the last century that it has ceased to mean anything of significance.

Evangelical Christians need not be “fundamentalists”—a term that in its heyday (around the time of the First World War) was used in America to distinguish between a belief in the inerrancy and moral supremacy of the Bible and another philosophy called, in the media of the day, “modernism.” In that quarrel, the famous Scopes trial was the manufactured darling. Most Christians who consider themselves Evangelical aren’t Pentecostal, a term that refers to a belief in the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through everyday life—especially in preaching, healing and moral decision-making. A close cousin of the Pentecostal movement is Charismatic Christianity, which has occasionally bridged the divide between robust protestant varieties of “Holy Ghost religion” (“pigeon religion”) and American Catholicism.

Evangelicals tend to be social conservatives. They like their bible strong but not 100-proof. Many are open to discussion about LGBT issues and contraception, but less open to gay marriage and abortion. There are things they have in common with Pentecostals and the more strident forms of biblical fundamentalism, but age, privilege, and education tend to divide them from these other strata. Most Evangelicals are patriotic; most are God Bless America Republicans; almost all tend to be what the press has christened social conservatives and defenders of family “values.” In modern parlance, an Evangelical is a negotiator: some are accommodationists, and some are reformers. The idea that an Evangelical is a fundamentalist who was successful at business and moved to the suburbs isn’t all that far-fetched.

Jerry Falwell (d 2007), Pat Robertson and James Hagee are fundamentalists. Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts (d 2009) and Kenneth Hagin (d 2003) Are Pentecostals. A subset of Pentecostals are Charismatic preachers like Benny Hinn (b 1953) and prosperity-gospel ministers like the Rev. T D Jakes. After a while, it’s merely tedious to chart the doctrinal and stylistic differences that separate these groups and subsets, which is why the term Evangelical—the broadest possible and most inclusive term to describe conservative Jesus- believers, becomes a convenient way of glossing over differences that outsiders don’t really care about anyway.

I am a soft-shell, no-sell (non-proselytizing) atheist. I don’t like conservatives of any description very much—social, political or religious. But in the interest of fair play and clarifying a thing or two, I have to say this. Christian conservatives, even that subset of Christian fundamentalists, aren’t very dangerous. They will not start shooting at you from the rooftops because you don’t believe in the thousand year reign of Christ, or blow themselves up in a mall because you think the Atonement is a metaphor. In fact, it was partly in the interest of protecting the forerunners of these minority groups and their quasi-pacifist and isolationist tendencies that Thomas Jefferson (who deemed them annoying but harmless) wrote in a letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptists (1802):

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience.”

The principle was firmly rooted before the 19th century (largely a result of 100 years of religious struggle between Catholics and Protestants in Europe and aristocrats, commoners and clergy (in France, the “estates”) on the social side, but first enshrined in the American Constitution. It wasn’t there to keep religion in its place. It was there to say that religion as religion has nothing to do with the decisions of the state and should not be used to inform or govern the decisions of the state.

We have come a long way since then. Most of it has been a journey to ignorance about the historical origins of the First Amendment, and away from the foundational sentiments that gave us the “establishment” and “free exercise” provisions. When we read about religious groups asking for Bible reading in schools or regional school boards complaining about evolution being taught as “fact” in science classes, we are really witnessing a country out of touch with the secular foundations of the Republic. We see this at work in the courts, in Congress, and in the public arena too much. We hear and read that America was founded as a Christian country (it wasn’t) or that its founding principles were biblical (they weren’t).

Socially conservative religious groups have been overreaching since the early days of the Republic; but they are louder and more consequential now because as media has improved, ideas that were once limited to the intellectual backwater of the Bible-belt have spread throughout the country in widening circles. Televangelism was the successor of the TV-Crusade era of early rock star evangelists like Billy Graham. The internet and social media is now the successor to broadcast evangelism. Zealotry of various sorts is better served by media than the platitudinous religion of mainstream and liberal religion—a fact we need to bear in mind when assessing the power and influence of relatively small groups of adepts as in ISIS and Revd Terry Jones’s anti-Islamic Dove Church World Outreach center.


All this being true, it’s a bit of a stretch to accept my next point: Christian evangelicalism is not an especially dangerous philosophy and at least in the United States never has been. True, certain political agendas like westward expansion, slavery, Manifest Destiny, and the Redeemer Nation image that gave us the dogma of American Exceptionalism, and even the response to the creeping Mormonism of the Midwest and Plains in the nineteenth century were sometime fueled by biblical tropes and flourishes. But so were abolition and the fight for women’s equality and civil rights and economic justice. The idea of America as the New Jerusalem (the city on the hill-platitude that endangered politicians like to invoke) come ultimately from Christianity and the Bible. But in general the civil body politick of the first settlers has withstood the temptation to impose the Christian equivalent of sharia law on the American state.

This is not because Americans are especially savvy or far-sighted; they aren’t. A majority I suspect could not coherently explain the differences and functions of the branches of government or how the electoral process that sends representatives to Congress works. It is arguable that the First Amendment provisions concerning religion would not garner enough votes in enough states to be ratified as an amendment today. And it isn’t because our instruments of government are rock solid either. Listening to the campaign rhetoric of 2016 should alert us to the fact that, as Benjamin Franklin once quipped, “You have a Republic if you can keep it.”

It is a wearying fact that the people who scream their love for America at the highest pitch probably have no clear idea of what it takes to keep it, apart from their customary equation of freedom and liberty with gun ownership and freedom of speech. The close association in the minds of some American religious conservatives between guns and religion is a matter of historical record. But the sorts of murderous activities we associate with a David Koresh, a Jim Jones or an Eric Robert Rudolph are remarkably rare–and in the first two cases examples of cultic father than exoteric aggression. The instances are memorable because of their comparative rarity, thus different from the barrage of suicide bombings and attacks launched by extremists and radicalized Muslims in the Middle East and, through surrogates, abroad.
Conservative Christianity can be annoying, noxious, distracting and sometimes—take the message of the Westboro Baptist Church for example—hateful. I take it for granted that all religions can be, even Zen and Hindu Shaivism. After all, religions are based essentially on differences of opinion. And despite fifty years of interfaith dialogue and attempts at cross cultural understanding, what divides belief is what explains belief.
That brings me to the end point of this little screed. Just as it is true that all religions have the capacity for violence, not all religions have the same capacity for violence.


The reasons for this are cultural and historical: the current state of any living faith cannot be located in its foundational documents, however highly revered and programmatic for the faithful. It is one of the reasons why atheist critiques of religion, and Christian conservatism in particular, come up short, based as they usually are on literal readings of the most obnoxious and outmoded passages of scripture. Just as the violence of the Crusades and Inquisition are not explained by the teaching of Jesus, neither are Abolition, the Civil Rights movement, or programs supporting economic justice and the rights of minorities organic extensions of the New Testament.


Religion, as H. Richard Niebuhr and Peter Berger have explained, is a process of negotiation that often begins with rejection and opposition to the cultural norms that environ it at its beginning (think first century Palestinian Judaism or seventh century Meccan society) and ends up through a series of accommodations a different thing from what it was in the beginning.
There is no promise that the “thing” will be peaceful and benign. –Or even that it will emerge intact as one thing. Christianity has not survived intact but through a process of fissipiration that we call “denominationalism”—the most dramatic example of which was the protestant reformation of the sixteenth century. And though many believing Muslims will reject this as an article opposed to a central axiom of their religion, Islam itself has not survived intact either. Indeed splinters of its own form of denominationalism appeared before the death of the Prophet and continued unabated throughout the entirety of its existence. The fountainhead of the Abrahamic traditions, Judaism, began its process of accommodation so early—from the time of the encounter with the Canaanites in the second millennium BCE–through the destruction of the Temple, the diaspora, and the formation of an ethically-based rabbinical Judaism–that it is difficult to trace its evolution historically.


There is no necessity that any religion will be as relevant in the same way in the twenty-first century as it was in the fifteenth or fifth–in fact, given that the conditions of its origin are unrepeatable it is probably impossible to talk strictly about the religion of the first Christians or the religion of Mahammad’s first followers. Although almost every religious reformation begins with the belief that it is a “purifying” movement or a return to the basics of the faith, what such movements have normally produced is not a facsimile of the original but a violent clash between a living and evolved belief system and a caricature of what zealots believe to have been true millennia ago. The most strident Christian Bible-based groups epitomize this pattern, but normally in a non-violent way. The most ardent Islamic radicals believe the same thing, but see violence, in the form of jihad, as an instrument in the purifying process.
Theoretically the God of the Bible may be changeless and in equal proportion righteous, just, and merciful. And it may be important, in the interest of civil conversation, to pretend that all religions proclaim peace, love, mercy and compassion. But our eyes tell us that in the twenty-first century it is not the Christian sort of “fundamentalism” that normally results in mass death, homicide bombings, the murder of school children, the harassment, rape and forced conversion of girls, socially sanctioned honour killings and sectarian purges of sectarian rivals, and attacks on unbelievers.


Evangelical Protestantism, including its fundamentalist variety, is a last -gasp defense of the fourfold gospel in its more or less literal and unexamined form. It is broadly non-theological. Islamic fundamentalism likewise is a much larger and more regressive position in relation to the normativity of the Qur’an, but its “fundamentals” are different, have not been negotiated in the same way, nor evolved at anything like the same pace or under the same conditions.
For that reason, the use of the term “fundamentalism” to describe matching trends or patterns in the history of religion is not only inexact and unhelpful, but inevitably leads to wrong conclusions.

The BBC-Birmingham “Qur’an” Facts Fiasco

The New Oxonian

It is one of the cardinal tenets of Islam that the Qur’an was essentially “complete” in the Prophet’s lifetime and written down very soon after in the time of  Uthman before the end of the seventh century  It is a further tenet that the exact wording of the text has remained unchanged from the time of its revelation until today. A standard web-based information site offers the following standard orthodox appraisal:

“The Qur’an is a record of the exact words revealed by God through the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. It was memorized by Muhammad and then dictated to his Companions, and written down by scribes, who cross-checked it during his lifetime. Not one word of its 114 chapters, Suras, has been changed over the centuries, so that the Qur’an is in every detail the unique and miraculous text which was revealed to Muhammad fourteen centuries ago.” (, search…

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Revisiting the Birmingham Qur’an Debacle

A year on, the story has fallen from the headlines–largely because it is a glaring example of the central problem in Islamic historiography: Wishful thinking

The New Oxonian

“In December 2015 Professor François Déroche of the Collège de France confirmed the identification of the two Birmingham leaves with those of the Paris Qur’an BnF Arabe 328(c), as had been proposed by Dr Alba Fedeli. Prof. Deroche, however, expressed reservations about the reliability of the radiocarbon dates proposed for the Birmingham leaves, noting instances elsewhere in which radiocarbon dating had proved inaccurate in testing Qur’ans with an explicit endowment date; and also that none of the counterpart Paris leaves had yet been carbon-dated.”


The case for the antiquity of the Birmingham Qur’an fragments grows weaker by the day.

As with all orchestrated media splashes,  the original story having done its work, not many people will pay attention to the unraveling of the growing mythology surrounding the discovery.

1.  It has been suggested that the two-leaf parchment fragment uncovered in Birmingham “belongs with another sixteen in Paris (BnF Arabe 328(c); as indeed they sit neatly in a lacuna in that text.”  However…

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Donald Trump’s Imaginary Band



When Professor Harold Hill comes to River City, Iowa, to start a marching band he encounters a group of stubborn locals who don’t cotton to strangers but do like music. They have a barbershop quartet, a music teacher, a library whose benefactor mysteriously left the books to the librarian and the building to the city council, and  a long tradition of prescribed charity, marked by being willing to help, without really loving, one’s neighbour.

Harold Hill is a flim-flam man, a character in American  letters that goes back to folklore and the tall tales of frontier humour and reaches its apex in the story of the Duke and Dauphin in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. (Even the Wizard in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz is a  moral version of the species) They are frauds and hucksters pitting their wits against the dull denizens of  the flat, dull central and prairie states, and they are riverboat gamblers and snake oil salesmen and out and out thieves who drive wagons through dead-end protestant towns promising the gullible a cure for what ails them.  Their clientele are the people H L Mencken described as oblivious to facts and uninterested in detail–

No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.

He continues, 

The mistake that is made always runs [this way]:. Because the plain people are able to speak and understand, and even, in many cases, to read and write, it is assumed that they have ideas in their heads, and an appetite for more. This assumption is a folly.

In the case of Harold Hill, he promises the people a band of festooned drummers and trombone players marching proudly through the flat streets of River City for the Fourth of July.  The problem is, the professor can’t read music, play an instrument, direct a band or deliver on any of the promises he’s made.  It’s all flim flam–as he confesses when confronted with his crooked dealing:

Oh this is a refined operation son, and I’ve got it timed down to the last wave of the brakeman’s hand on the last train outta town.

The hypocrisy of the Music Man is that it finds redemption in the idea that even if you’re hoodwinked by a total fraud and no-gooder–shucks–people deserve to dream and the fake professor at least delivers on that: The musical’s big production number turns his lie into a reality and encourages the belief that flim flam is as good as the truth, and that if you are dull-witted and gullible you still have the right to your illusions. Maybe (we are encouraged to think, as Dickens encourages us to think Scrooge will be improved by his nightmares) Harold Hill will end up on the straight and narrow, or at least not be tarred and feathered, which is the fate of Mark Twain’s characters. In anti-intellectual America everybody deserves a shot; education and training get in the way of “common sense” decision- making, and there’s not much difference between someone who talks a good game and someone who knows how to play one.

The travelling salesman and medicine man era is over.  Now we have shopping channels and internet marketing in their place. But the plain people are still pretty bloody plain and the temptation to flim-flam them out of their money or loyalty is just as great as it was in Twain’s and Mencken’s day.


Along comes a blast from the past: the true heir of every fraudster who had ever decorated the pages of a frontier humour magazine.  Like Professor Harold Hill, he sings his successes and promises his audiences a fantastic future where everything will be Fabulous.  Wars will be fought and won, not in the namby pamby, cautious, inconclusive way that American leaders have for the last eight or twenty …or who’s counting…or who knows where? Veterans will be taken care of. Women who have abortions will maybe be punished.  We’ll see (what do you want to hear–I’ll say it).  You want a big band? I’ll get you a big band. What kind of band do you want. It will be fabulous.  You want a wall to keep illegals out, I’ll build you the biggest damn wall you will ever see and it won’t cost you a nickel  Do you want gold T’s on it?  Fabulous.

Donald Trump belongs to a species of American humour that many people considered defunct until he reignited our passion to be hornswoggled, lied to, and persuaded that the world is reducible to the sum total of our competing prejudices and desires.

Curbside the nation is greedy for his snake oil, or seems to be.  Large sections of the country have become his Gary, Indiana or River City, Iowa.  He talks to the folks that politicians like to call folks even though many people hate the implicit dumbness of the word (I do)–the ones Mencken called the plain peoople. The ones who, because they can read and write and vote, we assume have ideas in their head, and don’t.

It is those empty heads that Trump is now cramming with his inconsistent and unworkable solutions to real time problems: the card shark who the plain folk imagine has the real story about global warming; the Las Vegas riverboat mogul who, it’s assumed, can handle foreign policy in the Middle East and strut with real leaders on the world stage. An insult comedian who knows plain people think diplomacy is bunk, that America is Number One and by God needs to stay that way.

How can an atavism like the flim flam man survive the glare of the media, of the searching eye of investigative journalism and public opinion? Easy.  The nabob media of the United States, whether conservative or liberal, is grossly ignorant because they have to sell their wares to the same people.  No one can look to them for the truth because the media have never been interested in the truth.  Mencken knew in the 1920’s that it was all about selling newspapers, and thus about stories.   Donald Trump, as a flim flam man, knows that.  The American media was made for him, not for real reporting about complex problems. Every day he strives to be a good story. And he is.

In most stories about flim flam men, the huckster gets his just deserts.   He has to because of a totally fallacious Lincolnesaque notion that a liar will lose if he tries to fool all of the people all of the time.  Put on a train, driven out of town on a rail, sent to jail, or ridiculed in the public square by the same people who, a day before, regarded him as their hero, their saviour from the grim sameness of life in River City.

But here’s the reality in Main Street America:  The citizens of this trembling democracy have elected average men, dishonest men, stupid men, cruel men and unworthy men to the office of president. The Jeffersons and Lincolns, Roosevelts and JFKs have been few and far between.  But that in iself is no surprise.  Most nations of the world can count their greats on the fingers of one hand.

The horrible thing about this event in American political history is that if this cardboard clown of a politician wins the election, it will be the first time that a known liar and fraud will be rewarded for lying his lies in such an open and consequential way and getting away with it. It is the public saying to the snake oil salesman, We know your potions are worthless, to the card shark, we know you’re cheating, to the used car salesman, we know the car you sold us was junk–but we don’t care. If he is elected, Donald Trump will reign as the pre-forgiven leader whose lies and callous indifference to truth have been wiped away by gullible and forgiving Christian yokels just as surely as Jesus wiped away their sins.

Flim Flam Donald doesn’t believe anything he is saying.   Like his literary ancestors, his feat has been to sell a bill of goods–a Brooklyn bridge, prime waterfront real estate in Florida, a $5.99 cure for angina, arthritis and obesity–to people who are ready to accept lies because the truth of politics and American democracy eludes them. Plain people like simple answers even if they are the wrong answers, and Trump’s answers are very, very simple.





















Robert Ingersoll: God and Man in Peoria

The New Oxonian

‘The public’ is a very strange animal, and although a good knowledge of human nature will generally lead a caterer of amusement to hit the people right, they are fickle and ofttimes perverse.” P. T. Barnum

Robert Green Ingersoll was born in Dresden, New York, the son of a liberal Congregational (Presbyterian) father who had a knack of offending his godfearing parishioners with his unparishionable views.

Ingersoll’s father, when his son was nine years old, had succeeded in calling himself to the attention of the presbytery and landing himself and his family in Ohio, then in Wisconsin, and then in Illinois where he died with a cloudy charge of “unministerial conduct” hanging over his head. Such charges were not uncommon in the hypersensitive religious climate of the nineteenth century and the polity of  the Congregational protestant system encouraged them.

It’s hard to determine whether Ingersoll’s dismal view of Calvinist Christianity…

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