December 3, 2015 by James Crossley
Hilary Benn’s speech in favour of bombing Syria has been getting the sort of predictable positive responses from the media which is now expected in the build up to a war. He referenced the parable of the Good Samaritan:
As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have, and we never should, walk by on the other side of the road. And we are here faced by fascists…They hold our values in contempt. The hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy…in contempt…Socialists and Trade Unionists and others joined the International Brigades in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini…we must now confront this evil.
The addition of ‘of the road’ makes this allusion more explicit than others. And this saying and this parable, along with the accompanying ‘Love thy neighbour’, has probably been the most prominent among all biblical sayings and passages in recent years. Over the past 40 years, the most famous user was Thatcher who made claims such as ‘no-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well’.
As it happens, the Good Samaritan has also been a favourite of his Shadow Cabinet rival and Leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has used the language of (not) walking by to attack on the Welfare Reform Bill (in contrast to the party line—which was followed by Hilary Benn—before him which was to abstain from voting against it). He may even have deliberately countered Thatcher’s use and Thatcher’s claim of ‘no such thing as society’ in an interview with Andrew Marr. At the Labour Party conference he used such language in line with a tradition of constructing a distinctly English/British Radical Bible. Worth noting too is how Corbyn constructs ISIS as a ‘perversion of Islam’ to justify non-military intervention in the Middle East and North Africa, which contrasts sharply with dominant constructions of False Islam.
Indeed, this construction of False Islam has been used for purposes of intervention by David Cameron. Cameron too has been a prominent user of the Good Samaritan in his updating of Thatcher’s Bible. He has used ‘love thy neighbour’ to justifying downplaying the role of state provision of welfare in the cases of, for instance, foodbanks and the fallout from the 2014 floods. It is a ‘doctrine’ applicable ‘at school, at work, at home and with our families’. There is a militaristic angle to Cameron’s use of the famous line from the parable itself. When Cameron’s True Islam (liberal, peaceful, tolerant, etc.) and British values (liberal, peaceful, tolerant, etc.) are faced with Cameron’s notions of False Islam (illiberal, violent, intolerant etc.) and ISIS, he claimed that ‘we cannot just walk on by if we are to keep this country safe…we have to confront this menace…we will do so in a calm, deliberate way but with an iron determination’. Cameron’s Liberal Bible has the further function of providing the authority for establishing who has the legitimate monopoly on violence. This also explains why, in the Syria debate, he was keen to drop terms like ‘Islamic State’ by claiming it neither Islamic nor a State. As with the True Bible and True Islam, only True States can legitimately use violence. This also means that the opposition is to be categorised in fantastical terms. ISIS, for Cameron, are not Muslims, ‘they are monsters’ and ‘an organisation which is the embodiment of evil’.
In light of the (deliberately) shocking cruelty of ISIS Cameron’s construction of evil will have a sympathetic audience. But by simplifying the situation is also mask the complexity histories of the emergence of ISIS, some of which were outlined in the previous post. Whatever the reasons for this masking, violence is once again grounded in, and justified by, a given politician’s construction of, and assumptions about, the Bible and religion.
Hilary Benn’s rhetoric likewise covers over the complexity behind the emergence of ISIS, including the reference to ‘evil’. The difference is that Benn, like Blair before him (and recall that Benn supported the Iraq War), uses the language of the Labour tradition to make what is effectively the same point. ISIS are now deemed fascist. This is not, of course, to deny fascist tendencies in strands of revolutionary Islam but, as shown in an essay by Michael Watts I referenced in the previous post which also challenged Christopher Hitchens’ term ‘Islamofascism’, this hardly explains the ideological history where influences come from the far right and left, as well as certain Islamic traditions (e.g. Wahhabism). Comparing ISIS with Franco and Hitler may or may not work rhetorically, but, like any historical analogy, it really says more about the speaker rather than some historical reality. In this case it covers over not only the complex history and, rightly or wrongly, any potential complicity in the emergence of a group as murderous as ISIS.
And as the debate over bombing Syria has been intertwined with what people think about Jeremy Corbyn and about the direction of the Labour Party, so too is this a battle (whether the participants know it or not) for which Bible implicitly gives them their authority. And for those with ears to hear, Hilary Benn’s Good Samaritan is closer to Cameron’s Good Samaritan than to Corbyn’s.