Monday, 12 September 2005

Terrorists trained abroad

Consider the situation: A number of our fellow-countrymen separated from the majority of us by religious beliefs but relatively happily integrated with the larger society; within that group a small band of bombers determined to wreak maximum destruction in the heart of London—extremist and violent religionists, disowned by most of those who share their faith and motivated by a far deeper attachment to a supra-national creed than to the British state. Some of them trained abroad, many of them Englishmen but deeply disillusioned with the way in which the highly materialistic, highly commercial and highly nationalistic culture of this country leads away from their ideals.

That was how things stood exactly four hundred years ago. But the bomb did not go off and Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were caught and tortured to death. There was now seen to be no difference between Catholics loyal to the British state and those intent on subverting it, and the equivalent of pass laws were enacted. Demonstrably good and innocent Catholic men and women were hunted down, subjected to nauseatingly corrupt trials and tortured for confessions or had confessions concocted for them.

The plot set back the cause of toleration for two centuries. Not until 1829, with the Catholic Emancipation Act, were Roman Catholics at last admitted fully into the legal, political and property-owning life of this country.

Of course one episode cannot be mapped on to another 400 years later, but the story of the Gunpowder Plot does carry a warning: a tolerant, multi-layered and in many ways subtle approach to cultural diversity was quite suddenly and for a very long time thrown into reverse by an attack made on the majority culture by a tiny, partially unhinged group of murderous maniacs. They represented no one but themselves, but their actions were frightening enough for the majority culture to close down on them and any one who looked like them.

The quatercentenary of the Gunpowder Plot is passing without much recognition. Perhaps the resonances of that period are too hot and too strong; the Catholics were the Muslims of 1605.

…from an article in The Guardian by Adam Nicolson.

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