Thursday, 5 December 2013

Thinking about Palestine 2

Democracy, establishment and diversity

Being a modern democracy, having a definite established religion, and operating as a single state across a diverse population, are an impossible combination.  Once you have two of the three, it is deeply problematic to have the third.  This is a dynamic shared in a recent seminar.  It was offered as a way of understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but most of this post is actually about how this is part of the British story.

It is possible to imagine a modern democracy with a definite established religion – a confessional state in which the culture, practices and values of the people arise out of their shared religious (and possibly also ethnic) roots.  But it would be deeply problematic if the state’s population included substantial numbers who did not share that religious basis and were therefore prevented from equal participation in either the democracy or in the culture where their votes and activities would otherwise change the predominant nature of the society.

It is possible to imagine a modern democracy operating a single state across a diverse population – this is what most modern Western states do.  But it would be deeply problematic if there was then an exclusive established religion – which is why the very weak form of established religion in England gives rights, to use the most recent example, to a same-sex couple who wish to share a double bed in commercial accommodation owned by a Christian couple whose conviction is that sexual activity is wrong outside heterosexual marriage.

It is possible to imagine a state having a definite established religion and operating a single state across a diverse population – a confessional state in which those of a different religious (and possibly ethnic) background are required to conform or to accept a lower status.  But it would be deeply problematic for such a state if it developed as a modern democracy – the assertion of the equality and rights of the minority would challenge the conformity or caste basis of the state.

This tension in Israel-Palestine

Israel seeks to be a modern democracy (its internal and external defenders frequently reference ‘the only democratic government in the Middle East’), to have a definite established religion (its present peace negotiating position is that it must be acknowledged explicitly to be a ‘Jewish state’), and has occupied a wide territory with a diverse population (especially if one includes the areas occupied in 1967 across which new Jewish settlements continue to be established), so one would simply expect deep problems to manifest themselves, and the ‘give’ for any such state will have to be in terms of democracy in relation to restrictions on the equal rights of those from populations which do not share the definite religious basis of the state.

This tension in British history

But the purpose of this short piece isn’t to point that finger but to point instead to three specific parallels in English, British and United Kingdom history which it might be worth exploring in much more detail.  To put it simply: we have been there ourselves.

The starting point would be in a pre-democratic era when England was a state having an definite (Protestant) established religion and operating a single state across a diverse population – a confessional state in which those of a different (Catholic) religious background were required to conform or to accept a lower status.

First, if we begin after this immediate Reformation period - the fifty years beginning with the ‘Elizabethan Settlement’ (the basis for state and religious peace from the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I in 1558) - there are a remarkable number of similarities with the present situation in Israel.  There was the fostering of popular awareness of the stories of those killed on just one side of the conflict (especially through the hugely popular Foxe’s Book of Martyrs 1563), intifada (such as the Rising of the North 1569), suppression justified because of bellicose calls from foreign powers of a different religion (the Pope’s call for citizens to depose Elizabeth 1570 in particular), pre-emptive strikes against neighbour’s forces (such as the Raid on Cadiz 1587) and neighbouring states marshalling troops on the border (most threateningly the Spanish Armada 1588), a sense of divine choice (Divine Right of Kings espoused particularly by James I from 1603), and the recurrence of individual acts of terrorism even of suicide bombing (most famously the Gunpowder Plot 1605).

Secondly, and briefly in brackets, if we fast forward to the beginnings of the development of a modern democracy, and if the opening analysis of this piece is accurate, we would expect to find the definite religious establishment of the state weakening and/or the areas where minority population predominate seeking independence.  It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the pressures built up following the American and French Revolutions (1776 and 1789) bringing about things like the establishment of the definitive Catholic Association working for an independent Ireland (1823), the final  Roman Catholic Relief Act (1829) and first great parliamentary Reform Act (1832) all at about the same time.   As what had been established as a state having a definite established religion and operating as a single state across a diverse population added being a modern democracy to the mix, the dilution of the religious establishment and the development of the rights of minorities in this way is the pattern you'd expect to see.

But, thirdly, to go back to where we left off as James I succeeded Elizabeth I (and as a United Kingdom developed), there was one other development which provides the most telling parallel of all.  During the Tudor period there had been individual pioneering Protestants (Scots in the main) who had seen it as their civilizing and religious duty and to their economic benefit to establish small colonies in an area in which Catholics were in the majority - the north of Ireland.  Initially government policy did not support this, but soon it did.  ‘The Plantation of Ulster’, including the dispossession of much of the Catholic Gaelic population, especially once the official financial investment of the City of London Livery Companies became part of the story, then took off.  It would not be an exaggeration to claim that this sustained policy of creating these settlements from the beginning of the seventeenth century was the direct cause of the terrorism in the area three hundred years later at the end of the twentieth century.


This piece is now ove rlong as a Blog post but still superficially short as an essay, but I think the basic ideas help me see some things a little more clearly.  Holding together democracy, establishment and diversity may simply be impossible, and so the objective truth is there has to be give in at least one of the three areas when any state seeks to engage in all here at once.  My greatest fear arises at the end:  Britain has already discovered that any religious state which thinks a policy of placing colonies, plantations or settlements in religious minority areas is a way of securing its own borders, future and security may in fact simply be cementing in the possibilities of conflict, dispute and terrorism for perhaps even centuries to come.

The picture is of Tantur taken from south Bethlehem.

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