Press Column

If this is a war for the future of civilisation, it is a little disconcerting that the only British troops on the ground in Afghanistan turn out to be minicab drivers from places like Luton, and they’re all fighting for the Taliban. How on earth did they end up like that? A wrong turning from the M25? And what happened to their passengers? It is of course the secret shame of the religious correspondents that no one among them understands what is going on in the Muslim communities of Britain. I can speak with some authority here, because I know that I failed, and was rewarded for it. Some years ago, Paul Vallely and I won a prize from the CRE for a series on British Muslims. It was perfectly solid journalism, but we spent something like ten days travelling around exotic distant places like Bradford, Birmingham, and Manchester, learned a great deal, and realised at the end of it that we knew about 0.5% of what real understanding would demand. Then we returned to more normal lives. Still, this was progress: when the Satanic Verses crisis broke out in 1989, the first I knew of it was a message from newsdesk secretary that said, in full, "Some nutter rang up about a salmon but I couldn’t understand him".

So there is some interest in the Daily Mail pouring reporters onto the street to discover where the British taleban came from — and discovering more or less precisely nothing: "At a small maisonette where he lifved with his mother Safia and two sisters, a family spokesman refused to say where he had been educated or anything about his father or the family’s circumstances. He said Safia, who speaks no English, has devastated at her sons death. The family had been told he died while praying at a mosque that had been bombed." Whether that is really how he died is one question; whether the family believes it, is another, rather more interesting and in the long run more important.

Pantaleon, the King of North India, made a welcome appearance in the Guardian, as part of William Dalrymple’s thoughtful piece on the decline of Eastern Christianity. It is extraordinary how Christianity, like Buddhism, has become a doughnut-shaped religion, with a few adherents in the countries where it started off. Dalrymple’s story was a deeply saddening one, full of persecutions and emigrations. "Only in the late 20th century was traditional tolerance replaced by a new hardening in Islamic attitudes. After centuries of usually peaceful co-existence with their Muslim neighbours, things are now very increasingly difficult for the last Eastern Christians. Almost everywhere in the Middle East, for a variety of different reasons - partly because of economic pressure, but more often due to discrimination and, in some cases, outright persecution - the Christians are leaving. Even a century ago, nearly a quarter of the population of the Levant was Christian; in a town like Istanbul, that proportion rose to nearly half. But today the Christians are a small minority of 14m, struggling to keep afloat amid 180m non-Christians, with their numbers shrinking annually through emigration. In the past 20 years, at least 2m have left the Middle East to make new lives for themselves in Europe, Australia and America."

In the long run, the presence of a large and voting Palestinian diaspora will have an interesting effect on American politics and so on Israeli politics too. In the long run, too, as Keynes said, we are all dead; it’s a nice judgement which will come first.

The most astonishing thing in the Guardian last week was the splash on a story of internal Roman Catholic politics: the sacking of Archbishop Ward of Birmingham by the Pope. Almost all the broadsheets had stories saying "He’s been sacked, really" — the Times, for example, led "The Archbishop of Cardiff suddenly left his position as head of the Roman Catholic Church in Wales yesterday amid speculation that he had been dismissed." But only the Guardian went for it full out, with a front-page headline above a huge photograph: "Sacked: the archbishop judged unfit for office."

This was one of those stories where the best efforts of the Archbishop’s spinners made the truth even plainer. I don’t know who was responsible for the story in the Daily Telegraph gossip column — one of the paedophile priests whom the Archbishop defended, had worked for years as his press officer, but he’s now serving eight years and unlikely to be making telephone calls. But on Wednesday the Daily Telegraph’s Peterborough column carried a story in which the Archbishop’s spokesman explained He hfeels he has had a very positive meeting with the Pope." The story went on to say "A face-saving arrangement has been arrived at, and an announcement fdrom th eVatican is expected shortly. Archbishop Ward will not be sacked, but is likely to leave his post ‘voluntarily’ within a year."

Compare this with the Archbishop’s statement, the following day, announcing that he had in fact been sacked: "I am weary of an environment characterised by a lack of loyalty. I have been shocked and deeply hurt by those sections of the media and the members of the Catholic church who did their utmost to attack me." None the less, he went on "At the end of my audience, I came to the conclusion that my present good health could quickly return to incapacity." This is of course exactly what you are supposed to understand when shown the instruments. "Consequently, I offered my resignation to Pope John Paul II and I immediately felt at peace."

David Lammy, the 29-year-old MP, and a member of the Archbishops’ council, has been decorating the Evening Standard with his new girlfriend, an even more gorgeous television presenter. As a member of the Archbishops’ Council, he will if course be setting an example of chastity to the nation; but when I rang a spokesman to confirm this, he got the giggles and told me a story about Dolly Parton instead.

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