Why Farage is Unknowingly Aping 17th Century Anti-Catholic Language

By Darragh Roche

In 1605, a group of religious extremists nearly bombed the state opening of parliament. If these terrorists had succeeded, the entire English ruling class, including the King, would have been wiped out in an instant. These fanatics hoped the ensuing chaos and panic would give their religion the opportunity to seize power and impose itself on an infidel population. English schoolchildren are taught the story of the Gunpowder Plot with rhymes and songs and every year local communities engage in a queer, macabre custom of burning an effigy of the most famous terrorist in English history, Guy Fawkes. There is an unsettling similarity today between 17th century attitudes to ‘Popish’ plots and the language surrounding Islamic extremism. Most English people, including Catholics, have happily forgotten the centuries of Protestant paranoia and anti-Papist policies but there are key lessons from this era that are valuable in today’s discussions.

When UKIP leader Nigel Farage accused British Muslims of having ‘a split of loyalties’, he was unknowingly aping 17th century anti-Catholic language. Catholics were strongly suspected of disloyalty to the protestant crown. How could they be loyal to the King and loyal to the Pope? Catholic belief seemed to directly undermine the monarch’s authority, resting as it did on his divine rite. As head of the Church of England, the monarch was in direct competition with the Pope for religious authority. So today, Farage and others see Muslim loyalty to the British state as suspect. If Islam, as some believe, is opposed by nature to British values, how can Muslims be trusted? Terrorist plots by radical Muslims are held up as evidence that all Muslims are potential enemies of the state – their belief system is incompatible with being British. The Gunpowder Plot gave anti-Catholic politicians the same justification. England passed harsh laws against ‘Popery’, enforcing oaths of allegiance, treating all Catholics as a fifth column, ready to strike at any time. Speeches, books and acts of parliament denouncing Catholics were commonplace, just as anti-Muslim sentiments are becoming increasingly mainstream, in Britain and especially in America. US state governors have said they will refuse Syrian refugees settling in their states. Anyone professing Islam is a potential enemy; their religion makes them irredeemably compromised.

Fear drove the laws against Popery. Some Catholic radicals were willing to use violence, but they were a tiny minority. Guy Fawkes was a convert to Rome, disenchanted with the English government. The Gunpowder plot was not sponsored by the papacy or any of the many Catholic countries in Europe. The apparent help of a Jesuit priest is comparable to radical Islamic preachers encouraging suicide bombings. Naturally, the overwhelming majority of Catholics obeyed the law, kept their heads down and never had the slightest intention of attacking their country. Like British Muslims, Catholics participated in every walk of life, even members of the royal family were suspected or even openly Catholic. Some noble families stubbornly maintained their faith in the face of legal sanction. None of them tried to destroy English or British values. In fact, British Catholics helped to turn Britain into what it is today.

Farage hasn’t study his history closely enough. Muslims are ordinary people. Their religion, and perhaps their position on social and political issues, may be different from what is now considered mainstream or appropriate, but just like Britain’s long oppressed Catholics, they are not the enemy within. Catholics didn’t take up arms against England en masse at the call of the Pope or the messianic King of Spain, and British Muslims won’t pledge their allegiance to Islamic State or any other foreign power. There will always be fanatics who despise moderate members of their own religion as much as so-called infidels. Catholics know all too well that in such a large religion, there are always zealots. It is worth remembering that one of the reasons behind the Gunpowder Plot was a lack of tolerance for Catholics under James I. If that is not a warning for those seeking to brand Muslims as the devils inside the walls, nothing is.

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