November 5th holds a special place in the British calendar: ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ – named after a Catholic-led conspiracy in 1605 to blow up the Houses of Parliament with barrels of explosives concealed in the building’s basement, then take over the state in the chaotic aftermath. The plot’s failure is commemorated annually with firework displays, and burning effigy ‘Guys’. Amid a backdrop of terrorism-related stories from Yemen, Turkey, and Iraq in the past week, not to mention the trial of a woman who tried to kill an British member of parliament, Guy Fawkes Night serves as a reminder that Britain’s Muslims are not the first religious community to experience pressures over the need to address the issue of political violence, and the stigmatisation and suspicion that it provokes. Nor are such pressures particularly new, meriting claims that “the rules of the game are changing” in a scenario that is wholly without precedent.
Clerics coming from overseas, arriving in England to preach urgent rebellion. Inspiring subversion, dissent, and political violence in the name of religion, these overseas nationals find welcome among sections of the faithful here. Converts changing their names to signpost their new identities and distance themselves from the life they leave behind. Inspired by the escapism that the prospect of martial glory can offer, eager young men abandon their families. Disaffected, lonely, and chafing against the system, they travel to foreign landscapes in search of holy war and become addicted to the intimacy that the experience shared with their brethren can offer. Returning home, they import their radicalism, fired by the meaning that their experiences have given to their lives.
The above scenarios may prompt thoughts of a minority among young British Muslims today, but the same could be said of British Catholics in centuries past. Think of Guy Fawkes. A convert to Catholicism, who changed ‘Guy’ to ‘Guido’ in acknowledgement of his new identity, and travelled to continental Europe to participate in the fighting. There, as a soldier, he encountered other like-minded young men, and was further immersed in into a fraternity of zeal and militancy. Did they too not witness the persecution of their co-religionists and conclude that their faith itself was under attack, and embrace a narrative that a call to arms was needed to defend it? One thinks of the homes belonging to landowning Catholics that have secret rooms built to conceal clandestine preachers from the authorities. Imagine the contemporary protests, that not all Catholics were plotting revolution and trying to seize power, and that such subversion was only the preserve of a destructive few. Why should we endlessly have to apologise for the actions of those that have nothing to do with us?
Of course the situation in Guy Fawkes’ time is not a direct parallel of today’s, but not could it be so after so many years. The comparisons are not worth over-egging, and situation today is arguably far more murky. After all, religious orthodoxy is no longer enforced by state coercion and religious recusancy is no longer prosecuted. Islamist revolutionaries have not plotted to destroy parliament and take over the state, and the prospect of invasion by an overseas power is negligible. Nowadays, a London pub such as The Duck and Drake, where the Gunpowder plotters met, is more likely to be the target of a terrorist attack than the seat of such a conspiracy. Our state functionaries no longer directly torture and execute dissidents as standard practice, but this does not mean there is nothing to be learned from scenarios in the past. Indeed, such is the baggage and hangover from political violence in the past that Tony Blair waited until he left office before he immediately converted to Catholicism.
The relationship between adherents of a particular faith and the actions of other adherents is a sensitive one. The hoo-hah prompted by the Pope’s recent visit to the UK only goes to show that British Muslims are not the only religious grouping to be placed under the media spotlight, and confronted by the awkward truth about the actions conducted by some of their co-religionists. For a minute there, during the visit the spotlight returned Britain’s Catholics. Of course, no one argues that paedophilia is sanctioned by Catholicism in the same way as some try to with political or social violence in Islam, however the controversy over the Church’s refusal to endorse condom usage on a point of faith is a subject that requires reconciling for many Catholics. Every religious community is forced to confront awkward realities, though such issues are often far removed from the lives of ordinary adherents. With Islam nowadays it is social and political violence, with Catholicism it is sexual issues such as condom usage and paedophilia, and with various African churches it is witchcraft and folk practices. All faiths have their weak points, but the pressures come and go.
RICHARD PHELPS is a Research Fellow at Quilliam (a London-based think tank). His main research focus is on Islamist movements and Islamist dissent in the Arabic speaking world. He can be reached at: Richard.Phelps@Quilliamfoundation.org