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A Nativity Sham

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Jesus was not born in a stable, says theologian

Rev Ian Paul writes on his blog that birth of Christ story is based on a misreading of the New Testament

A 15th century nativity scene by Paolo Schiavo. Photograph: Philadelphia Museum of Art/Corbis

The birth of Christ may be the most famous Bible story of all, reprised annually in nativity scenes across the world each Christmas: Jesus was born in a stable, because there was no room at the inn. But evangelical scholar Rev Ian Paul has argued that the entire story may be based on a misreading of the New Testament, reviving an ancient theory that Jesus was not, in fact, born in a stable.

“I am sorry to spoil your preparations for Christmas before the Christmas lights have even gone up,” Rev Paul, a theologian and former Dean of Studies at St John’s theological college, Nottingham, has written on his personal blog. “But Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, and, curiously, the New Testament hardly even hints that this might have been the case.”

Paul argues that the Greek word, kataluma, usually translated as “Inn” was in fact used for a reception room in a private house – the same term is used to describe the “upper room” where Jesus and his disciples ate the last supper. An entirely different word, pandocheion, is used to describe an “Inn” or any other place where strangers are welcomed.

Even if there were an inn in Bethlehem, Paul argues, Joseph and Mary would not have been staying there. The only reason for them to travel to Bethlehem for the census was because he had family there and if he did, the customs of first-century Palestine required him to stay with relatives and not with strangers.

In that context, the kataluma where he stayed would not have been an Inn, but a guest room in the house of the family where Joseph and Mary were staying. That could very well have been full with other relatives who had arrived before them.

“The actual design of Palestinian homes (even to the present day) makes sense of the whole story,” Paul writes. “Most families would live in a single-room house, with a lower compartment for animals to be brought in at night, and either a room at the back for visitors, or space on the roof. The family living area would usually have hollows in the ground, filled with straw, in the living area, where the animals would feed.”

So Jesus would not have been born in a detached stable, but in the lower floor of a peasant house, where the animals were kept.

This interpretation is hardly new. The earliest scholar to put it forward was the Spaniard Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas, in 1584. He was denounced to the inquisition for his pains and reprimanded by them, though not actually burned, tortured or imprisoned as might have happened to heretics.

Since then the theory has repeatedly been raised by New Testament greek scholars aware that kataluma does not actually mean “Inn”. Paul himself first wrote about the misinterpretation of the word in 2013, and re-posted his theory this year “because I have been struck again how often the message of Christmas is summed up as ‘Jesus was born in a stable’, both within and beyond the church.”

For Paul, the significance of his reinterpretation of the story is that it undercuts the idea that what made Jesus remarkable was that he was born to humble, outcast parents. “In the Christmas story, Jesus is not sad and lonely, some distance away in the manger, needing our sympathy. He is in the midst of the family, and all the visiting relations, right in the thick of it and demanding our attention,” he writes.

“This should fundamentally change our approach to enacting and preaching on the nativity.”

Paul says that what is extraordinary about the birth of Jesus is that it shows God shifting from the divine to the human. If that happened in a crowded family home, the message is preserved. If it happened in an isolated stable, “that just shows that the descent was from a respected human to a disrespected human,” he argues.

Source: TheGuardian

Will religion ever disappear?

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The lighting of a cross during the Christian Los Escobazos Festival in Spain, celebrating the conception of the Virgin Mary (Getty Images)

Atheism is on the rise around the world, so does that mean spirituality will soon be a thing of the past? Rachel Nuwer discovers that the answer is far from simple.

A growing number of people, millions worldwide, say they believe that life definitively ends at death – that there is no God, no afterlife and no divine plan. And it’s an outlook that could be gaining momentum – despite its lack of cheer. In some countries, openly acknowledged atheism has never been more popular.

“There’s absolutely more atheists around today than ever before, both in sheer numbers and as a percentage of humanity,” says Phil Zuckerman, a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and author of Living the Secular Life. According to a Gallup International survey of more than 50,000 people in 57 countries, the number of individuals claiming to be religious fell from 77% to 68% between 2005 and 2011, while those who self-identified as atheist rose by 3% – bringing the world’s estimated proportion of adamant non-believers to 13%.

While atheists certainly are not the majority, could it be that these figures are a harbinger of things to come? Assuming global trends continue might religion someday disappear entirely?

It’s impossible to predict the future, but examining what we know about religion – including why it evolved in the first place, and why some people chose to believe in it and others abandon it – can hint at how our relationship with the divine might play out in decades or centuries to come.

A priest in Ukraine holds a cross in the ruins of Kiev’s Trade Union building earlier this year (Getty Images)

Scholars are still trying to tease out the complex factors that drive an individual or a nation toward atheism, but there are a few commonalities. Part of religion’s appeal is that it offers security in an uncertain world. So not surprisingly, nations that report the highest rates of atheism tend to be those that provide their citizens with relatively high economic, political and existential stability. “Security in society seems to diminish religious belief,” Zuckerman says. Capitalism, access to technology and education also seems to correlate with a corrosion of religiosity in some populations, he adds.

Crisis of faith

Japan, the UK, Canada, South Korea, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, France and Uruguay (where the majority of citizens have European roots) are all places where religion was important just a century or so ago, but that now report some of the lowest belief rates in the world. These countries feature strong educational and social security systems, low inequality and are all relatively wealthy. “Basically, people are less scared about what might befall them,” says Quentin Atkinson, a psychologist at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Yemeni girls show their hands decorated with traditional henna designs as they celebrate the end of Ramadan (Getty Images)

Yet decline in belief seems to be occurring across the board, including in places that are still strongly religious, such as Brazil, Jamaica and Ireland. “Very few societies are more religious today than they were 40 or 50 years ago,” Zuckerman says. “The only exception might be Iran, but that’s tricky because secular people might be hiding their beliefs.”

The US, too, is an outlier in that it is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, but also has high rates of religiosity. (Still, a recent Pew survey revealed that, between 2007 and 2012, the proportion of Americans who said they are atheist rose from 1.6% to 2.4%.)

Decline, however, does not mean disappearance, says Ara Norenzayan, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and author of Big Gods. Existential security is more fallible than it seems. In a moment, everything can change: a drunk driver can kill a loved one; a tornado can destroy a town; a doctor can issue a terminal diagnosis. As climate change wreaks havoc on the world in coming years and natural resources potentially grow scarce, then suffering and hardship could fuel religiosity. “People want to escape suffering, but if they can’t get out of it, they want to find meaning,” Norenzayan says. “For some reason, religion seems to give meaning to suffering – much more so than any secular ideal or belief that we know of.”

In the Philippines, survivors of Super Typhoon Haiyan march during a religious procession (Getty Images)

This phenomenon constantly plays out in hospital rooms and disaster zones around the world. In 2011, for example, a massive earthquake struck Christchurch, New Zealand – a highly secular society. There was a sudden spike of religiosity in the people who experienced that event, but the rest of the country remained as secular as ever. While exceptions to this rule do exist – religion in Japan plummeted following World War II, for instance – for the most part, Zuckerman says, we adhere by the Christchurch model. “If experiencing something terrible caused all people to become atheists, then we’d all be atheists,” he says.

The mind of god

But even if the world’s troubles were miraculously solved and we all led peaceful lives in equity, religion would probably still be around. This is because a god-shaped hole seems to exist in our species’ neuropsychology, thanks to a quirk of our evolution.

Source: BBCNews Read more

Nepal’s living goddess

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…who still has to do homework

Samita Bajracharya is a 12-year-old Nepalese girl who lives with her family, studies hard, and enjoys playing a Nepali version of the lute. But until recently she was also worshipped by people who believed she was a reincarnated goddess.

Along a busy thoroughfare in Lalitpur, near Kathmandu, a passageway leads into a large, open-air courtyard. In the back corner, there’s a modest home, with a red sign outside that simply reads, “Living Goddess”.

A narrow wooden staircase leads up to the second floor, where the goddess spends much of her childhood. She’s called a Kumari, which means “young, unmarried girl”.

She’s worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists in Nepal, who believe she’s a reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga.

I got to know the mother of this Kumari – Nepal has a few of them – after several visits to her house.

How did it feel when her daughter, Samita, was chosen to be a Kumari, I asked?

“I felt both happy and sad,” she says. “On one hand, I felt happy because when your daughter becomes god, having a god in the home is a delightful thing. But I also got scared because I wasn’t sure if we would be able to follow all the rules.”

There are many rules. For one, Samita’s mother has to apply special makeup to her daughter’s face in intricate designs. The girl isn’t allowed to go outside except for festivals. On those occasions, her feet must not touch the ground. That means someone has to carry the young goddess.

Furthermore, the Kumari is not permitted to speak to anyone besides her family and close friends.

The best way to find out what life is like for a child goddess is to talk to a former Kumari. I call Samita’s predecessor, Chanira Bajracharya (no relation), and she agrees to an interview in her home.

We sit on the floor of the dark chamber where she spent a decade praying and blessing visitors.

Chanira Bajracharya in 2007

I expect we’ll do the interview in Nepali, but when I ask her a question, she starts speaking fluently in English. She tells me that she learned the language by reading newspapers during her Kumari days.

“When I was a goddess, I used to peek through the holes of windows,” Chanira says.

She’s now a 19-year-old business student, and looks like any ordinary teenager in her fashionable green T-shirt and black trousers. She became a Kumari when she was just five years old.

“Being a goddess is just like being a princess and you get everything at home,” she says. “I never missed going outside, but rather enjoyed staying at home and being part of the divine life.”

This divine life ended abruptly when Chanira was 15, on the day she first menstruated. Suddenly she was no longer the Kumari. She says the transition was difficult.

“When I had to step out of my house for the first time, I didn’t know how to walk properly,” she says. “My mom and dad, they used to hold my hands and teach me how to walk.”

During her Kumari years, private tutors taught her at home. All of a sudden, she started going to school with other children.

“It was a big challenge for me,” Chanira says. “All of the classmates were so afraid to talk to me because I was an ex-goddess and I was treated a little bit differently.

“They even used to say that I’m an alien. They said that to me.”

Believers no longer bowed down to her or touched her feet as they’d done for years.

“I lost that respect,” she says. “I never imagined that my life would be so changed in such a sudden way.”

As soon as Chanira’s tenure ended, local priests chose a new Kumari. Her successor, Samita, happened to be a close friend, almost like a younger sister.

“When I was a goddess, she used to come here and we were friends so she knows about the Kumari life,” Chanira says.

The Kumari’s life of prayer also includes homework. When I go back to the current Kumari’s home, her mother allows me to enter her room and watch a private tutoring session.

For the first time, I see her as a normal girl as she sits quietly at her desk, and carefully takes notes.

“There wasn’t a tradition to educate the Kumaris in the past,” her teacher Rachna Upreti says. “Their world was in the four corners of their rooms.”

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Kumari

Kumari child
  • Kumari Devi are pre-pubescent girls, believed to be the reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga – also called Taleju in Nepal
  • They are chosen based on several physical characteristics, but also have to pass a series of tests
  • There are several Kumaris in Nepal – the most important, in Kathmandu, lives in a royal dwelling called the Kumari Bahal
  • The goddess is believed to vacate the Kumari’s body when she first menstruates
  • The Kumari is selected from the Shakya or Bajracharya clan of Kathmandu’s Newari community

Source: BBCNews Read and see more

 

Who are the Yazidis?

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Who, What, Why: Who are the Yazidis?

Among the many victims of the advance of The Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East are a group of up to 50,000 Yazidis, who are trapped in the mountains in northwest Iraq without food or water. Diana Darke explains who these mysterious religious adherents are.

Suddenly thrust into the limelight by their plight, the Yazidis will not welcome the glare of international attention. On account of their unusual beliefs, they are often unjustly referred to as “devil worshippers“, and have traditionally held themselves apart in small communities mainly scattered across northwest Iraq, northwest Syria and southeast Turkey.

Estimating their current numbers is difficult, with figures ranging from 70,000 to 500,000. Feared, vilified and persecuted, there is no doubt the population has dwindled considerably over the course of the past century. Like other minority religions of the region, such as the Druze and the Alawis, it is not possible to convert to Yazidism, only to be born into it.

The Yazidis’ holiest temple is in Lalesh, situated in a valley 430kms northwest of Baghdad

The ongoing persecution in their heartland of the Mt Sinjar region west of Mosul is based on a misunderstanding of their name. Sunni extremists, such as IS, believe it derives from Yazid ibn Muawiya (647-683), the deeply unpopular second caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. Modern research, however, has clarified that the name is nothing to do with the loose-living Yazid, or the Persian city of Yazd, but is taken from the modern Persian “ized”, which means angel or deity. The name Izidis simply means “worshippers of god“, which is how Yazidis describe themselves.

Their own name for themselves is Daasin (plural Dawaaseen), which is taken from the name of an old Nestorian – the Ancient Church of the East – diocese, for many of their beliefs are derived from Christianity. They revere both the Bible and the Koran, but much of their own tradition is oral. Due in part to its secrecy, there have been misunderstandings that the complex Yazidi faith is linked to Zoroastrianism with a light/dark duality and even sun worship. Recent scholarship, however, has shown that although their shrines are often decorated with the sun and that graves point east towards the sunrise, they share many elements with Christianity and Islam.

Children are baptised with consecrated water by a pir (priest). At weddings he breaks bread and gives one half to the bride and the other to the groom. The bride, dressed in red, visits Christian churches. In December, Yazidis fast for three days, before drinking wine with the pir. On 15-20 September there is an annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Sheikh Adi at Lalesh north of Mosul, where they carry out ritual ablutions in the river. They also practice sacrifice of animals and circumcision.

Their supreme being is known as Yasdan. He is considered to be on such an elevated level that he cannot be worshipped directly. He is considered a passive force, the Creator of the world, not the preserver. Seven great spirits emanate from him of which the greatest is the Peacock Angel known as Malak Taus – active executor of the divine will. The peacock in early Christianity was a symbol of immortality, because its flesh does not appear to decay. Malak Taus is considered God’s alter ego, inseparable from Him, and to that extent Yazidism is monotheistic.

Images of Malak Ta’us, or the Peacock Angel, appear on temples, shrines and graves

Yazidis pray to Malak Taus five times a day. His other name is Shaytan, which is Arabic for devil, and this has led to the Yazidis being mislabelled as “devil-worshippers”. The Yazidis believe that souls pass into successive bodily forms (transmigration) and that gradual purification is possible through continual rebirth, making Hell redundant. The worst possible fate for a Yazidi is to be expelled from his community, as this means their soul can never progress. Conversion to another religion is, therefore, out of the question.

In remote areas of southeast Turkey towards the Syrian and Iraqi borders, their once-abandoned villages are starting to come back to life, with new houses being built by the communities themselves. Many Yazidis are returning from exile now that the Turkish government leaves them undisturbed. Despite centuries of persecution the Yazidis have never abandoned their faith, testimony to their remarkable sense of identity and strength of character. If they are driven from Iraq and Syria by IS extremists, the likelihood is that more will settle in southeast Turkey where they are left to live out their beliefs in peace.

Source: BBCNews Read more, see more photos

An Uncommon Holy Relic: Sheela-Na-Gig!

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Reblogged from: northierthanthou

Okay, now I know what you are thinking; “Dan is posting porn again! Will someone please keep him away from that damned erotic heritage place!?!” But no. I tell you I didn’t find this in a red light district, smut shop, or even a kinky museum. This naughty little lady was found at a church. Her name is Sheela, or at least that’s what folks call her and a vast array of figures like her. She and her sisters go by the full name of ‘Sheela-na-Gigs’, and you can find them on churches throughout the United Kingdom. Yes, that’s right, it appears that one can find images of grotesque women spreading their labia can be found at old churches throughout the United Kingdom. Why, you may ask. Well it’s a fair question, but the answer appears to be difficult to nail down. There are a couple theories as to the origins of the term, Sheela-Na-gig, just as there are a few theories as to the reason such images could be found in old churches. Is she a relic of past paganism, an omen about the temptations of sin, or possibly just an erotic gargoyle of sorts. It really depends on who you ask.

Read more and see more images on the original post linked above.

Christmas Traditions

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XmasTrads

‘Earliest shrine’ uncovered at Buddha’s birthplace

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The remains lay buried beneath the present day Maya Devi Temple

Archaeologists digging at Buddha’s birthplace have uncovered remains of the “earliest ever Buddhist shrine”.

They unearthed a 6th Century BC timber structure buried within the Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini in Nepal.

The shrine appears to have housed a tree. This links to the Buddha nativity story – his mother gave birth to him while holding on to a tree branch.

Its discovery may settle the dispute over the birth date of the Buddha, the team reports in the journal Antiquity.

Radiocarbon

Every year thousands of Buddhists make a holy pilgrimage to Lumbini – long identified as the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha.

Yet despite the many texts chronicling his life and teachings, it is still uncertain when he lived.

Estimates for his birth stretch as far back as 623 BC, but many scholars believed 390-340 BC a more realistic timeframe.

Until now, the earliest evidence of Buddhist structures at Lumbini dated no earlier than the 3rd Century BC, in the era of the emperor Ashoka.

To investigate, archaeologists began excavating at the heart of the temple – alongside meditating monks, nuns and pilgrims.

They unearthed a wooden structure with a central void which had no roof. Brick temples built later above the timber were also arranged around this central space.

To date the buildings, fragments of charcoal and grains of sand were tested using a combination of radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques.

“Now, for the first time, we have an archaeological sequence at Lumbini that shows a building there as early as the 6th century BC,” said archaeologist Prof Robin Coningham of Durham University, who co-led the international team, supported by the National Geographic Society.

The holy site remained open for meditation while archaeologists excavated

“This is the earliest evidence of a Buddhist shrine anywhere in the world.

“It sheds light on a very long debate, which has led to differences in teachings and traditions of Buddhism.

“The narrative of Lumbini’s establishment as a pilgrimage site under Ashokan patronage must be modified since it is clear that the site had already undergone embellishment for centuries.”

The dig also detected signs of ancient tree roots in the wooden building’s central void – suggesting it was a tree shrine.

Tradition records that Queen Maya Devi gave birth to the Buddha while grasping the branch of a tree within the Lumbini Garden.

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Tablets are not new

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Even Moses had one, or two…

MosesTablets

The Middle East in a Nutshell

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NUTSHELLI have often wondered about the Middle East and how it became so. I already knew quite a bit, but not about the nut in the shell.

This article on BBC News has explained a lot of what went and goes on inside that shell.

As you read, it dawns on you why the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood and currently, Syria is so problematic.

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A Point of View: Democracy and Islamic law

French and Turkish military officials meet after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire

Should a nation be defined by language and territory, by ruling party or by faith, asks Roger Scruton.

To understand what is happening in the Middle East today we must look back to the end of World War I. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had been destroyed, and from the ruins emerged a collection of nation states.

These nation states – including Austria, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia – were not arbitrary creations. Their boundaries reflected long-standing divisions of language, religion, culture and ethnicity. And although the whole arrangement collapsed within two decades, this was in part because of the rise of Nazism and communism, both ideologies of conquest.

Today we take the nation states of central Europe for granted. They are settled political entities, each with a government elected by the citizens who live on its soil.

When the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, so too did the Ottoman Empire, whose territories embraced the whole of the Middle East and North Africa.

The victorious allies divided up the Ottoman Empire into small territorial states. But very few of these have enjoyed more than a temporary spasm of democracy. Many have been governed by clans, sects, families or the military, usually assisted, as in Syria, by the violent suppression of every group that challenges the ruling power.

People often explain the relative absence of democracy in the Middle East by arguing that the carving up of the region into territories bears no relation to the pre-existing loyalties of the people.

In a few cases it worked. Ataturk, general of the Turkish army, was able to defend the Turkish-speaking heart of the empire and turn it into a modern state on the European model. Elsewhere, many people identified themselves primarily in religious rather than national terms. Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, told his followers that bringing together the world’s Muslims in a supra-national Islamic State, a Caliphate, should be a top priority.

The result of imposing national boundaries on people who define themselves in religious terms is the kind of chaos we have witnessed in Iraq, where Sunni and Shia fight for dominance, or the even greater chaos that we now witness in Syria, where a minority Islamic sect, the Alawites, has maintained a monopoly of social power since the rise of the Assad family.

Prayers against divisions in Iraq – the shirts read, from left, Kurdish, Yazidi, Turkmen, Shia, Sunni, Christian

By contrast Europeans are more inclined to define ourselves in national terms. In any conflict it is the nation that must be defended. And if God once ordered otherwise, then it is time he changed his mind. Such an idea is anathema to Islam, which is based on the belief that God has laid down an eternal law and it is up to us to submit to it: that is what the word Islam means: submission.

Sunni Islam was the official faith of the Ottomans, and no other form of Islam was formally recognised. Toleration was extended to the various Christian sects, to Zoroastrians and to Jews. But the official story over several centuries was that the empire was ruled by Sharia, the holy law of Islam, augmented by a civil code and by the domestic law of the various permitted sects.

Ataturk abolished the Sultanate and established a new civil code, based on European precedents. And he drew up a constitution that expressly severed all connection with Islamic law, forbade Islamic forms of dress, outlawed polygamy, imposed a secular system of education, and enjoined allegiance to the Turkish homeland as the primary duty of every Turk. In any crisis, when loyalty is at stake, you are to identify yourself first of all as a Turk, and only then as a Muslim. And he allowed the sale of alcohol, so that the Turkish people could drink to their new condition in the way that he preferred.

Ataturk remade Turkey as a comparatively open and prosperous country that could turn a proud face to the modern world. For he made it into a nation, defined by language and territory rather than by party or faith. Universal adult suffrage for both sexes was introduced into Turkey in 1933. And the country continues to be governed by a legal system that derives its authority from human legislators rather than divine revelation.

A portrait of Ataturk – founder of modern Turkey – decorates this protester’s flag

At the same time its population is almost entirely Muslim, and experiences the inevitable nostalgia for the pure and beautiful way of life invoked in the Koran. There is therefore tension between the secular state and the religious feelings of the people.

Ataturk was aware of this tension, and appointed the army as the guardian of the Secular Constitution. He imposed a system of education for army officers that would make them instinctive opponents of the obscurantism of the clerics. The army was to be the advocate of progress and modernity, which would place patriotism above piety in the hearts of the people.

In obedience to its appointed role, the Turkish army has several times stepped in to uphold Ataturk’s vision. It took over in 1980, when the Soviet Union was actively trying to subvert Turkish democracy and nationalists and leftists were fighting it out in the streets. The army has also made its presence felt in recent years, when the government of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has taken a step back towards the old Islamic values.

Erdogan, with portraits of himself and Ataturk as backdrop

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party is nominally secular. But he is a man of the people and a sincere Muslim, who believes that the Koran contains the divinely inspired and uniquely valid guide to human life. He is not happy with a constitution that puts patriotism above piety, and which makes the army, rather than the mosque, into the guardian of social order. He has put a large number of leading army officers on trial on charges of subversion, some of them now jailed for life.

The trials have been denounced as a travesty of justice; but those who say this are likely to be accused of subversion themselves. Journalists opposed to Erdogan’s policies have a remarkable tendency to end up in jail. Newspapers that criticise the prime minister find themselves suddenly confronted with crippling tax demands or massive fines. And popular protests are put down with whatever force may be required. In Turkey, opposition is now becoming dangerous.

The Turkish case vividly illustrates the point that democracy, freedom and human rights are not one thing but three. Erdogan has a large following. He has three times won an election with a substantial majority. But the elementary freedoms that we take for granted have been rather jeopardised than enhanced by this.

The Egyptian example is even more pertinent. The Muslim Brotherhood has always sought to be a mass movement, seeking to establish itself by popular support. But its most influential leader, Sayyid Qutb, denounced the whole idea of the secular state as a kind of blasphemy, an attempt to usurp the will of God by passing laws that have a merely human authority. Qutb was executed by President Nasser, who came to power in a military coup.

And ever since then the Muslim Brotherhood and the Army have played against each other. The Brotherhood aims for a populist government and won an election that it took to authorise the remaking of Egypt as an Islamic Republic. The posters waved by Morsi’s supporters did not advocate democracy or human rights. They said: “All of us are with the Sharia.” The army replied by saying no, only some of us are.

So why cannot a modern state govern itself by Islamic law? This is a controversial issue about which there are many learned views.

Here, for what it is worth, is mine. The original schools of Islamic jurisprudence, which arose in the wake of the Prophet’s reign in Medina, permitted jurists to adapt the law to the changing needs of society, by a process of reflection known as ijtihad, or effort. But this seems to have been brought to an end during the 8th Century, when it was maintained by the then dominant theological school that all important matters had been settled and that the “gate of ijtihad is closed”.

Trying to introduce Sharia today therefore runs the risk of imposing on people a system of law designed for the government of a long since vanished community and unable to adapt to the changing circumstances of human life. To put the point in a nutshell – secular law adapts, religious law merely endures.

Moreover, precisely because Sharia has not adapted, nobody really knows what it says. Does it tell us to stone adulterers to death? Some say yes, some say no. Does it tell us that investing money at interest is in every case forbidden? Some say yes, some say no.

When God makes the laws, the laws become as mysterious as God is. When we make the laws, and make them for our purposes, we can be certain what they mean. The only question then is “who are we?” What way of defining ourselves reconciles democratic elections with real opposition and individual rights? That, to my mind, is the most important question facing the West today. It is important because, as I shall argue next week, we too are giving the wrong answer.

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Only a Cardboard Replica

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New Zealand marks dedication of Christchurch cardboard cathedral

The cardboard cathedral can accommodate up to 700 people

New Zealand’s city of Christchurch has formally marked the completion of its new cardboard cathedral with a dedication service.

The structure, which uses thick cardboard tubes, temporarily replaces the one damaged by the 2011 earthquake until a permanent one can be built.

Church officials say the completion marks a milestone in the city’s recovery efforts.

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