Rt Rev Stephen Venner: “The Taliban can perhaps be admired for their conviction to their faith and their sense of loyalty to each other.”
Unsurprisingly, the Bishop has found himself besieged by a media which is incapable of digesting anything more than a trite soundbite, and scorned by those journalists who are bound by their own bigoted prejudice that nothing good can come out of the Church of England. And so there are puerile histrionics and shrieks of horror that an Anglican bishop would ever have asked if the Nazis could be admired for their conviction. And we move directly to reductio ad Hitlerum, as Godwin’s Law is manifest once again, and self-righteous hyperbole seeks to constitute the final word.
The Bishop said: “We’ve been too simplistic in our attitude towards the Taliban.”
He explained: “There’s a large number of things that the Taliban say and stand for which none of us in the west could approve, but simply to say therefore that everything they do is bad is not helping the situation because it’s not honest really. The Taliban can perhaps be admired for their conviction to their faith and their sense of loyalty to each other.”
The Bishop was actually not saying anything different from what the Foreign Secretary said earlier in the year.
But Colonel Richard Kemp, a former commander in Afghanistan, said the bishop was being naïve. He said: “We clearly need to understand our enemy but that is more of a military issue rather than a religious one... There are many who will not be persuaded. Their central creed and ethos is about violent oppression which comes from a politics of extreme religion that has very little to commend it in terms that we would recognise or appreciate. In many ways it is a mistake to compare their faith of extreme holy war with the kind of religion of peace and understanding that the bishop follows. They certainly wouldn’t show understanding of his faith.”
The Colonel fundamentally misunderstands Christianity: we do not show peace and understanding to our enemies on the basis of reciprocity: loving others is not conditional on getting some love back. And his assertion that this is more of a military issue than a religious one is naïve: to ignore the fount and inspiration of the ‘politics of extreme religion’ is to risk making the Iraq mistake all over again.
One may simultaneously both despise and admire: one may hate and love, loathe and respect. There is no doubt that the Taliban have been responsible for public beatings, amputations and executions and have launched bomb attacks on the civilian population in Afghanistan. But these are people – men and women, husbands and wives, bringing up children in tightly-knit families in accordance with the patterns of a belief system which have been passed down from generation to generation for centuries.
One cannot change this with bombs and bullets.
There is no doubt that they believe they are fulfilling the purposes of God: they are at war with the Crusaders, and wish to die a martyrs death to spend eternity with 72 virgins in everlasting happiness. They are dying in the noblest of causes in the hope that their reward will be bountiful. Sadly, they are ignorant of the fact that the Qur’an makes no mention of 72 virgins anywhere in any sura.
They are victims of a religio-political lie: they are brainwashed to self-sacrifice in the name of Allah for the cause of the Caliphate.
And the bishop simply sought to remind us that it is ‘unhelpful to demonise them’. He adds: “We must remember that there are a lot of people who are under their influence for a whole range of reasons, and we simply can’t lump all of those together. To blanket them all as evil and paint them as black is not helpful in a very complex situation.”
By drawing attention to the Taliban’s conviction to their faith and their sense of loyalty to each other, the Bishop is following the example set by St Paul at the Areopagus, where he proclaimed:
"Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'
"Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone — an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead."
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, "We want to hear you again on this subject." At that, Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
This is a model for proclamation. St Paul does not condemn their idolatrous false religion: he begins by commending their ‘conviction to their faith’. By employing the language of reason and invitation rather than reproach and condemnation, he offers the Church a model for proclamation in our own ‘multi-cultural’ time. He quotes the Greek poets and sees the light within their philosophy, and he builds on this to articulate the name of the God who is the source and destination of their quest for salvation.
If Greek philosophy can be a legitimate discourse for evangelism, then so can Islamic theology, however perverted a particular interpretation may be. If St Paul were to preach to the Taliban today the God of love who sent his own son to die in order that we might live, he might well have begun with their ‘sense of loyalty to one another’.
Of course, we are at war. Perhaps the Bishop’s discourse might have been better received and articulated during peacetime. But Cranmer cannot help wondering why this single sentence has circumvented the world, causing so much pain, offence and grief, while a far more important observation by the Bishop went largely unreported.
He said the Government has ‘a moral duty’ to ensure that the army is properly equipped.
Perhaps we might hear a little more about the Government’s moral deficiency in this respect. Or perhaps a few journalists might like to commend the Bishop for pointing this out?