Charterhouse Chronicle Frank Longford
How and where do we draw the line between religious devotion, which most of us admire, and religious fanaticism, which few of us have much use for? The question has exercised my mind these last few days in relation to a debate in the House of Lords on the denial of human rights in Iran. It may be asked how much do I know about Iran? The answer must be, at first hand, nothing. But I have recently acquired a good friend in Mr Nadir who runs a very successful car agency from which my family benefit much. Mr Nadir served for a number of years with distinction in the Iranian navy. first under the Shah and then under the present regime. He has taught me much about Iran, from where his drivers also come. He has good things and bad to say about the regime of the Shah but the time came when he found that what he calls the injustices of the present rulers too much to bear.
They are the mullahs, fanatical Mohammedans. Their regime in that respect is different from Iraq where a kind of military dictatorship prevails. The mullahs are no doubt deeply sincere religious men. So we are left asking ourselves can religious belief carried to the point of fanaticism he a curse rather than a blessing? We Christians must search our consciences and ask about our own bigotry past and present. We need not go back to the Inquisition. We can take a long hard look at Northern Ireland today, bearing in mind dim the peculiar relationship between Protestants and Catholics in the Six Counties is the product of British intervention in that part of the world. I have written before now about friendship between Protestants and Catholics there and no-one can compare the extremism of someone like the Rev Ian Paisley with the horrifying antagonism between, shall we say, Jews and Arabs. No-one can doubt the profound religious fervour of Ian Paisley. Least of all can I after he gave me his little book on the Epistle to the Romans. In the House of Commons recently he called for a day of prayer. He reminds me of the figures of an earlier era. He takes one back to the age of Elizabeth and Mary. We feel rightly that in England at least we have moved a long way beyond the religious cruelties of those times. But even without cruelty there can be bigotry. After au, Catholics did not get the vote until 1829 and up until 1947 Catholic peers had an asterisk against their names in the Parliamentary handbook.
When I was 'a boy in West Meath, relations between Protestant and Catholics could be described as excellent. My mother's best friend was a Catholic spinster and we all knew and laughed at the story of the mother of our closest friend living a few miles away. She was a Protestant of the famous family of Boyd Rochfonis. When she married a Catholic neighbour of ours she received a telegram from her widowed mother. "Your father's curse probable. Your mother's certain." Not a very good beginning for married life. When my brother, a leading Protestant until the day of his death in 1961, died, Elizabeth and I went over for the funeral. We were the only Catholics, however, who entered the cathedral, apart from Brendan Behan, a bold spirit. The others gathered in large numbers at the graveside. When I mentioned that two years later, to the Archbishop of Dublin, it was already past history. So change goes on and we may yet see Protestants receiving our Communion.
But to come back to Iran. There is much international argument about the proper treatment of the main opposition forces outside the country. Should they be regarded as terrorists? From their point of view there is no other way to overthrow a harsh dictatorship. They have in front of them the example of, shall we say, Michael Collins, once regarded as a murderer, later as a hero; or even Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison for alleged terrorist offences. I asked Mr Nadir how he viewed the forces trying to overthrow the mullahs. He would only approve of them if they were
seeking to introduce a regime which was in some sense democratic. I must leave to others better qualified to tell us what political and economic steps should be taken to make matters better in that country. On the religious side, is there anything that could be done by Christians to influence members of another religion who believe in the same God?
It was disconcerting to read an article in The Guardian that the inequality of income between rich and poor was higher in 1999 to 2000 than it has ever been. I hope that the last Budget has done a little to rectify the situation but, however you look at it, it's bad news for old Labourites.
When I joined the Labour Party in 1936. I stated that I was a Socialist because I am a Christian. Socialism in those days included a good deal of nationalisation which I never felt was the essential element. But. above all, it still means to me a considerable re-distribution of wealth between rich and poor. The Bible of many of us was RH Tawney's book called Equality. We never fell for Bernard Shaw's target of total equality. But to be Labour without some serious move towards equality between rich and poor
seemed then and still seems to me rather meaningless. My idealistic friend Harold Pinter sent me the cutting following a discussion we had on this very matter. I was not dogmatic but I later sent him a detailed analysis which left the issue open. Now, for the time being at least, he has been proved all too right. But as a genuine friend of the poor he will view his triumph with mixed feelings.
If I am asked whether this has been a successful government I would say very successful in terms of all round economic progress. But I hope for something very much better next time on the social front.