Summary of First Thursday discussion, October 1st 2015
We progressed (if that is the right word) from a discussion of the rights and wrongs of tipping in restaurants to questioning President Putin’s motives for intervention in Syria. Is he, as he says, concerned to defeat ISIS, or to bolster President Assad (in order to secure Russia’s bases on the eastern Mediterranean?) by attacking the Free Syrian Army? If so, that seems likely to perpetuate the instability and conflict in Syrian society that has been brewing since the Alawite (and Assad family) seizure of power in 1971, though it has to be recognised that Assad has support in Syria, and not just from his own Alawite community.
For many in the UK, however, Syria is a concern because of the number of refugees it has produced. While international law demands that refugees should claim asylum in the first place of safety they reach, the fact that neighbouring counties are now overwhelmed has led many to look further afield to Europe. Germany’s initial welcome is at least partly motivated by awareness that an ageing population needs young immigrants. Most studies show that immigration is generally beneficial to a host country. The fact that some areas and groups in the UK are negatively affected comes from the determination of employers to reduce low-skill wages, and the cuts in funding to education, social services, health etc because of the general demand for lower taxation- in other words they are symptoms of serious weaknesses in Britain’s economy and politics, for which immigration has been made the scapegoat.
Some worry that large numbers of immigrants may change the culture of a country, in particular its character as a “Christian society”, at a time when ties to the Church, Sunday schools etc have been weakening for decades. We can quote some Muslim leaders who hope that Islam will become dominant in Britain not through force but through immigration alone. Others, however, recognise that it will remain a multi-faith society, so that Islam, as much as any other faith, must play its part in the creation of a just, stable and thriving society- and should be encouraged to do so.
In any case, the idea of a “Christian society” is not found in the New Testament- it was the result of an alliance between Constantine and the Church in his Empire some three hundred years later. The Muslim faith achieved a similar establishment in the Middle East under the Ummayad and Abbasid dynasties in the centuries after Mohammed’s preaching. It was the European wars of religion, especially in Germany from 1618 to 1648, that began to convince many that religion and politics must be kept separate. Islam, however, does not share the same conviction that faith and politics can be kept apart in that way.
One result of an over-emphasis on the separation of religion and politics is that faith can be seen as irrelevant (or even a hindrance) to the creation of a good moral basis for society. And too many Christians see themselves as an embattled minority, protesting from the sidelines as the symbols of former Christian dominance are alleged to be progressively removed. So perhaps the most important challenge today is that all faiths and philosophies should learn to contribute to the debate about what makes a good society, not from a position of dominance, but from mutual respect and a willingness to learn from one another.