The City Circle is an open circle for open minds

he municipalists of Lancashire could have done themselves a favour by describing the official they sought to employ as a community relations officer, or something featuring the term "cohesion". But every specialty has its buzzwords and so they advertised last month for someone to lead a "mythbusting project" to promote harmony and counter slurs about migrants. Soon they were taking fire. Mayday, Mayday.

"Anger at £30,000 plan for race 'myth-buster'," said the Daily Express. "Pointless non-jobs," said Richard Littlejohn. Another harrumph from the Taxpayers' Alliance. And predictably, across the internet, ridicule and outrage.

But spend some time in Lancaster or Morecambe and the idea hardly seems outrageous. You quickly find out that it isn't a council initiative. It involves many agencies, including the police and the fire service. The county council, Tory-led, mind, is providing admin but isn't paying. There's a grant from a government pot, funded by the cost of visas.

Yes, mythbuster is a funny job description, but what do you do when faced with a leaflet saying that Muslims in the region are responsible for all the drugs? Or that English workers are unemployed/homeless/under-educated/unhappy because of the Poles? When BNP extremists become MEPs and win a seat on Lancashire county council? The air needs clearing. Someone has to do it.

Liz Neat of the National Coalition Building Institute shows me around the west end of Morecambe with Magda, a tireless liaison worker. Magda is employed by the fire service but, with a smile for everyone, she's a bridge between officialdom and Poles in the area.

Things are happening in the west end, new shops, community facilities being built. There's tension between the settled and the recently arrived, but there are also attempts help them interact. Cultural events are good; anything involving food especially so. It's the social glue. Volunteers work in a drop-in centre, newsletters are crafted. People are trying to build.

But it's difficult, especially when perceptions are set, prejudices fed, and the air is rendered toxic. If a mythbuster helps Lancashire breath more easily, what's £30,000? It's a snip.

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 9th October 2009.

The Archbishop of Canterbury condemned policymakers for failing to consider the cost of the Iraq war as he led a memorial service today for the 179 British personnel who died in the conflict.

In a nuanced but powerful sermon, with Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and the Queen in the congregation, he warned against the influence of the "invisible enemy", which in Christian parlance means the Devil, in determining policy during war.

"The invisible enemy may be hiding in the temptation to look for short cuts in the search for justice, letting ends justify means, letting others rather than oneself carry the cost, denying the difficulties or the failures so as to present a good public face," he said.

The Archbishop, who has previously criticised the "ignorant" and "flawed" policy in Iraq, was careful to praise efforts of the troops on the ground and commend the sacrifices made.

The main thrust of his address at the Iraq remembrance in St Paul's Cathedral, though, was the shortcomings of policymakers in Iraq.

Quoting a passage from the Bible which refers to "spiritual wickedness in high places", the Archbishop said: "Many people of my generation and younger grew up doubting whether we should ever see another straightforward international conflict, fought by a standing army with conventional weapons.

"We had begun to forget the realities of cost. And when such conflict appeared on the horizon, there were those among both policymakers and commentators who were able to talk about it without really measuring the price, the cost of justice."

The Archbishop was clearly referring to the cost in human lives, both British military and Iraqi civilian, as well as the cost to the taxpayer, which amounted to £7.8 billion.

He and others, including coroners who have held inquests into the deaths of the 179 service personnel, believe that decisions made on equipment in the early stages of Operation Telic in Iraq, notably the deployment of lightly armoured Snatch Land Rovers from Northern Ireland, led to a high number of deaths because they proved vulnerable to roadside bombs planted by Shia militia extremists.

Dr Rowan Williams's criticism of the Government's failure to evaluate the cost, and thus the risks,  of putting troops in harm's way without adequate equipment is a reflection of his longstanding personal opposition to the war. The equipment issue will be one of the key elements of the official inquiry into the Iraq war announced by Gordon Brown this year.

Chapter six of St Paul's letter to the Ephesians, which was the second reading at the service, is one of the most powerful in the Bible.

The King James version renders it as: "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."

Dr Williams said that the campaign in Iraq, which provoked demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of protesters in Britain and around the world, would for a long time exercise historians, moralists and international experts.

"In a world as complicated as ours has become, it would be a very rash person who would feel able to say without hesitation this was absolutely the right or the wrong thing to do, the right or the wrong place to be."

With Iraq veterans and bereaved families also in the congregation, and senior royals including the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales, the Duchess of Cornwall, Prince William, the Earl and Countess of Wessex and the Princess Royal, he offered advice on how to resist the temptations against which he warned.

"St Paul tells us to wrap ourselves around with the truth, to be defended by justice and to be impatient only for peace. These are not remote ideals for a religious minority. They are essential advice for those caught up in the anxious, fast-changing world of modern military operations, with the intense, even harsh, scrutiny they get from observers and commentators worldwide."

Also present were two former heads of the Army, Sir Mike Jackson and Sir Richard Dannatt, and Geoff Hoon, the former Defence Secretary.

The sermon echoed the controversy provoked by a previous Archbishop of Canterbury, the late Robert Runcie, who won the Military Cross during the Second World War. In 1982, at the Falklands thanksgiving service, he aroused the fury of the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, when he asked the congregation to pray also for the relatives of Argentine soldiers killed in the war.

Dr Williams said: "The demanding task of winning local trust in a chaotic, ravaged society like post-invasion Iraq was one of the heaviest responsibilities laid on armed personnel anywhere in recent times.

"Many here will know just how patiently and consistently that work was taken on.

"The moral credibility of any country engaged in war depends a lot less on the rhetoric of politicians and commentators than on the capacity of every serving soldier to discharge these responsibilities with integrity and intelligence."

He added: "Reflecting on the years of the Iraq campaign, we cannot say that no mistakes were ever made, when has that ever been the case?, but we can be grateful for the courage and honesty shown in facing them."

He concluded by thanking "those who have taught us through their sacrifice the sheer worth of justice and peace and who have shouldered some of the responsibility for fleshing out the values most of us only talk about".

Dr Williams has made several attacks on the Government over the Iraq war.

In December 2006 he told Radio 4's Today programme: "I am wholly prepared to believe that those who made the decisions made them in good faith, but I think those decisions were flawed.

"And I think the moral and the practical flaws have emerged as time has gone on, very painfully, and they have put our own troops increasingly at risk in ways that I find deeply disturbing."

In an article for The Times he criticised "ignorant" decisions that had put the lives of Christians in the region at risk.

The Iraq war claimed the lives of 179 British personnel, 178 servicemen and women and one civilian Ministry of Defence worker.

Mr Blair looked solemn as he listened intently to the Archbishop's address.

This article first appeared in the Times on 9th October 2009.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama landed with a shock on the nation's capital. He won! For what?

For one of America's youngest presidents, in office less than nine months, and only for 12 days before the Nobel nomination deadline last February, it was an astonishing award.

But the prize seems to be more for promise than performance. Obama so far has no standout moment of victory. As for most presidents in their first year, the report card on Obama's ambitious agenda is an "incomplete."

He banned extreme interrogation techniques for terrorists. But he also promised to close the globally controversial U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a task with difficulties that have Obama headed to miss his own January 2010 deadline.

He said he would end the Iraq war. But he slowed the U.S. troop drawdown a bit. Meantime, he's running a second war in the Muslim world, in Afghanistan, and is seriously considering ramping that one up.

He has pushed for new efforts to make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. But there's been little cooperation so far.

His administration is talking to U.S. foes, like Iran, North Korea and Cuba. But there's not much to show from that, either.

He said he wants a nuclear-free world. But it was one thing to show the desire in his April Prague speech, and quite another to unite hesitant nations and U.S. lawmakers behind the necessary web of treaties and agreements.

He pledged to take the lead against climate change. But the U.S. seems likely to head into December's crucial international negotiations in Copenhagen with Obama-backed legislation still stalled.

And what about Obama's global prestige? It seemed to take a hit exactly a week ago when his trans-Atlantic journey to win the 2016 Olympics for Chicago was rejected with a last-place finish.

For the Nobel committee, merely altering the tone out of Washington toward the rest of the world seemed enough. Obama got much attention for his speech from Cairo reaching out a U.S. hand to the world's Muslims. His remarks at the U.N. General Assembly last month set down internationally welcome new markers for the way the U.S. works with the world.

But still. ...

Obama said he was as surprised as everyone else when he was awakened about an hour after the announcement.

"I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who have been honored by this prize," he said in the Rose Garden hours later. "That is why I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century."

The prize is not necessarily a big plus for Obama in the tricky U.S. political arena.

He won election last year in part because voters weary with the nation's battered image abroad were attracted to his promise of a new start. But Republicans have been criticizing Obama as being too much celebrity and too little action, and they immediately seized on this new praise, from Europeans, no less, to try to bring him down a peg.

From Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, for instance: "It is unfortunate that the president's star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements."

For Nobel voters, the award could be as much a slap at Obama's predecessor as about lauding Obama. Former President George W. Bush was reviled by much of the world for his cowboy diplomacy, Iraq war and snubbing of European priorities like global warming.

And remember that the Nobel prize has a long history of being awarded more for the committee's aspirations than for others' accomplishments, for Mideast peace or a better South Africa, for instance. In some cases, the prize is awarded to encourage those who receive it to see the effort through, sometimes at critical moments.

Nobel committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said as much. "Some people say, and I understand it, isn't it premature? Too early?" he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Well, I'd say then that it could be too late to respond three years from now. It is now that we have the opportunity to respond, all of us."

Obama certainly understands his challenges are too steep to resolve quickly. "It's not going to be easy," the president often says as he sets tasks for the United States.

The Nobel committee, it seems, had the audacity to hope that he'll eventually produce a record worthy of its prize.

This article first appeared on Associated Press on 9th October 2009.

The just-completed Georgetown's Common Word conference, Oct. 7-8, occurs at a time when the need for serious engagement and cooperation between Muslims and Christians is more urgent than ever.

Islam and Christianity are far and away the two largest global religions (1.5 and 2.1 billion). Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world's population. Today, more than ever before, they co-exist or encounter each other in 57 Muslim countries and in Europe and America and beyond. Despite significant doctrinal differences, they also they share much in common in matters of faith, values and interests. If religion has too often been part of the problem, it must also be part of the solution.

In contrast to the past, the world of the 21st century is both transformed and threatened by the impact of globalization, a source of integration and fragmentation in international affairs, economic and social development, and inter-religious or multi-religious affairs. Today, President Barack Obama and European leaders are faced with the fallout from eight years of Bush legacy that led many Muslim critics of the US-UK war on global terrorism to charge it was a war against Islam and Muslims, an attempt to redraw the map of the Muslim world. Obama, in his inauguration and subsequent addresses to Muslims from Ankara and Cairo, has sought to recast America's image among its Muslim and non-Muslim allies. His commitment to the importance of a multi-lateral approach with its emphasis on diplomacy in the pursuit of peace and justice -- in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, were among the reasons for the recent and surprising award of the Nobel Peace Prize as a recognition and encouragement of Barack Obama's fresh international vision in American foreign policy.

The Common Word Muslim initiative and the response by major Christian leaders and other global leaders to the document, "A Common Word Between Us and You," reflects the deep awareness of today's precarious and dangerous world of global politics and the need for Muslims and Christians to work together. As the CW document reminds us: "Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians."

"A Common Word: A Global Agenda for Change" was call to action. Sponsored by the Office of the President of Georgetown University, the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, and the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, it was the next step in the ongoing process of this groundbreaking initiative. Conferences at Yale and Cambridge universities and the Vatican had brought together global religious leaders and academic experts who explored the theological and scriptural bases and implications of the foundation of A Common Word, the two great commandments, Love of God and Love of Neighbor, based directly Christian, Muslim and Jewish Scriptures.

At Georgetown we addressed the "So what factor?" How do we respond to and put "Love of Neighbor" into action to address the many shared challenges and threats we face in our world? How do we transform a common word into common works?

Critical to realizing the purpose and goal of A Common Word is applied theology, transforming belief and dialogue into action. Conference encounters and their final reports alone, however good and important are too easily archived and do not in themselves change minds and hearts and transform societies. Words must be accompanied by action and deeds; visions must be implemented by concrete and, where possible, joint-efforts and projects.

Although convinced of the importance of this initiative, we were astonished at the incredible response. The acceptance rate from the global leaders invited ranged between 90-95%! Our opening session drew a capacity audience in Gaston Hall of 750; subsequent sessions averaged 500 to 600 participants. Media coverage included the Washington Post-Newsweek's On Faith, Al-Jazeera English, Al-Arabiyya, BBC, and many others.

In addition to prominent religious leaders and academics, key participants included practitioners: political leaders, social activists, leaders of major NGOs and others who came together to discuss and develop a "global agenda for change." Among the religious dignitaries were: the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theofilos III, the Grand Muftis of Egypt and Bosnia, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, and Mustafa Ceric; Professor Ingrid Mattson, President of the Islamic Society of North America; Theodore Cardinal McCarrick and Archbishop Celestino Megliore; the Anglican bishop of London, Richard Chartres, Nigeria's Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon and Bishop Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop the Evangelical Lutheran Church and President of the Lutheran World Federation. They were joined by former prime ministers, Britain's Tony Blair and Norway's Kjell Magne Bondevik, Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, the twentieth sultan of Sokoto, Nigeria, Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar and the presidents of major Christian and Muslim NGOs and organizations.

During our two days together we listened to and learned about the good practices, their challenges and accomplishments that already exist. Ken Hacket and David Robinson, leaders of Catholic Relief Services and World Vision, spoke of their global outreach and work in Muslim communities; Amr Khaled, charismatic preached and founder of the Right Start Foundation spoke of RSF's many projects in the Arab world and Europe; Dalia Mogahed, Executive Director, Gallup Muslim Studies, reported on a major youth project, "Muslim Americans Answer the Call"; Fr. Eliseo Mercado and Amina Rasul-Bernardo spoke of their use of A Common Word in the Southern Philippines; Pastor Bob Roberts and Dr. Chris Seiple spoke of their respective partnerships and projects with Muslims in the Afghanistan and the Northwest Frontier Province. Presentations and discussions were open and frank, highlighting important accomplishments, issues and problems; areas of agreement and difference; and especially the need to recognize that differences of faith need not be an obstacle to partnership and collaboration in areas of mutual concern.

At the end of our conference, after two long and exhausting 10 hour days, we held a wrap-up discussion: "Where Do We Go from Here?". While conferences like religious services often witness a good number of participants who hastily depart before the end, we were deligthed to see a full contingent and in fact had to finally cut off our session. After a summary of the key take-aways from our panels and leaders' and members of the audience reactions, we turned to what we could and would do to promote the ideas and initiatives discussed and then identified areas and projects to be pursued and developed in future. Many asked that contact information be provided for future collaborations and follow-up workshops, regionally and locally. These recommendations and others were taken up the next day and will be at future meetings by the Executive Committee of THE C-1 WORLD DIALOGUE: Improving relations between the Western and Islamic Worlds, whose co-chairs are Dr. Ali Gomaa Grand Mufti of Egypt and Dr. Richard Chartres, the Anglican Bishop of London.

John L. Esposito is University Professor and Founding Director of the Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding. He is co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think.

This article first appeared on Middle East Online on 12th October 2009.