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13 November 2005
Anti-Popery & anti-Islam

The 12th November 2005 edition of The Spectator is pretty much devoted to bashing the Mussies. Reading it online I was struck by how much of the anti-Muslim fears match, and are a reworking of, the old anti-Papist rants that were common currency from about 1850 to well within living memory. Well, living memory if you were born in the 1950s, as I was. The Papes are trying to take over England, they take orders from their priests and cannot think for themselves, they are ignorant. All these arguments were put forward a century ago against the Catholic population just as they are put forward today against the Muslims.

By the mid-Nineteenth Century Roman Catholicism had been tolerated for many years, but it had lacked adherents. In 1850, for the first time since the Reformation, the Roman Church was able to establish an archdiocese at Westminster and 13 sees to cover the whole country. Irish immigration meant that England could then justify a full hierarchy on a par with that of the Catholic European countries. The Times responded that the choice of Westminster was "one of the grossest acts of folly and impertinence which the Court of Rome has ventured to commit since the Crown and the people of England threw off its yoke." For their part, the Catholic hierarchy engaged in a spot of gloating, which only made the situation worse, not better. Dr. Nicholas Wiseman, the new cardinal and Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, wrote "We govern and shall continue to govern the counties of Middlesex, Hertford, Essex, as ordinary thereof, and those of Surrey, Sussex, Kent, Berkshire, and Hampshire, with the islands annexed, as administrator, with ordinary jurisdiction." It is said that Queen Victoria responded by asking, "Am I Queen of England, or am I not?"

One is reminded here of the ravings of various Mullahs and their fantasies that England will become an Islamic state. At root both sets of utterences look like the fantasies of a small, economically marginalised group who feel that one day, one day in the future, they will reach their nirvana, if only they have faith. England today is not a Catholic country and there is no evidence, in the form of mass conversions, say, to suggest that it will ever be Islamic - in spite of dreams to the contrary.

That Catholics were answerable to their priests and were, therefore, ignorant was an old charge that lasted until well into the Twentieth Century. Robert Roberts was born in 1905 in Salford, and his memories of his early life were published as The Classic Slum many years later. In them he recalls that people would say that "the Murphies" were so ignorant that they didn't know that food had to be cooked until they came to live in England. He also remembered how people would mock the Catholics for their reliance on their priests. Fifty years later I can remember my mother, a staunch low-Anglican, tut-tutting to her friends whenever a Catholic butcher or grocer gave free supplies to his parish priest. The standard explanation was that they had to do this, even though the reason was a matter of some debate amongst the woman of the area. Some held that they could not get absolution if they refused, others that the priest was a sort of god. Still more argued that they wanted special prayers saying, and this usually led to the bald statement being made that if only they knew that no earthly power could stand between a man and his God how much more liberated they would be. My mother just thought that they were mugs. Alien, un-English mugs, and she pitied them for their stupidity.

Magazines such as The Reformation Journal had helped to stoke this belief in Catholic ignorance and priestly control. Thus in Catholic Europe:
The ubiquitous priests and monks furnish a constant memento that conscience is under the yoke, and that no freedom of judgement is allowed. The armed police announce that a watch is placed over every movement, that speech must be restrained, and that the press is under strict censorship. The development of mind is thus painfully cramped, and the range of mental acquirements is contracted within a narrow compass
Here we pretty much have the anti-papist argument in a nutshell, and it is also the one that is used today against Islam. The countries that are under its sway are backward, ignorant and controlled by a clerical police-state. Now, it may actually be true that Papal States of over a century ago and Iran today are fairly odious examples of what happens when religious figures gain temporal powers, but to what extent is this important? We are not talking about the internal affairs of Iran - they can do as they please with their country - we are talking about the United Kingdom.

Put simply, the Papacy may very well have dreamed that Catholic Europe would sweep aside the Reformation, aided by Irish 5th columists in England, but Catholic Europe was too backward to even think about doing anything of the sort. England was safe from the threat of another Armada, just as she is safe today from Arabian threats. Arabia cannot even unite, let alone build the armed forces necessary to take on any of the developed countries of the world. Flying aircraft into tall buildings is one thing; having the wit to be able to create a modern economy that can build and maintain modern armed forces is quite another. As with the Catholics of the past who rattled their rosary beads and prayed to their god, so it is with the Islamists today who stick their noses in the dirt and their bums in the air. Only when a people leave behind such superstition can they begin to progress. Catholic Europe did it and ceased to be Catholic Europe in the process. The Islamic world is still stuck in the past and until it changes it will not be able to threaten anyone. If it does change, it may find that it no longer wishes to.

What we have here are examples of fear and the similar ways in which those fears manifest themselves. It is dificult to asimilate a backward, primitive people who are forced to rely on clerics because they are unable to cope alone in a modern society. It took over a century for anti-Catholic feeling to finally die in England; but die it did as the descendents of Irish immigrants finally joined the great post-Christian mass of the population. It may take another century before the descendents of Pakistani imigrants do the same, but if past performance is anything to go by, England has little to seriously worry about.

"We are not talking about the internal affairs of Iran - they can do as they please with their country"

Is this a socialist outlook?

As for technological capacity, the Iranians have ICBMs with a long range and are not too far away, by all accounts, from nuclear warheads.

You make some good parallels about the mass of Muslims in the UK with Irish imigrants, but you are too complacent about the threat from Islamist organisations and states.

13 November 2005 at 10:06  

Thanks for calling attention to the Spectator issue. It looks interesting.

Your thesis, on the other hand, overlooks the obvious fact that Islamism today is highly aggressive and often extremely violent. Such things were not factors in the anti-catholicism of the past 150 years.

13 November 2005 at 15:17  

To take the three points that have been raised while I was tucked up:

1, Yes, I do. Socialism is about self-interest. I am socialist because of what I am and because I think my lot will improve under collectivist-socialism. Internationalism is a tactic that may no longer be valid to help destroy capitalsm in Britain.

2. Iran does not have ICBMs, what she has are upgraded Scuds that can fly, sort of, about 300 miles. The claim that she will have nuclear weapons in six months is little more than an excuse by the USA to attack her.

3. Popery was extremely bloody violent in the past. Being an Englishman in 1588 was not fun, especially when you thought about what those nasty Papists were going to do to you, your country and your church. The fact that things calmed down only reflects the naval weakness of Catholic Europe - they got stuck into Protestant Europe, CF The Thirty Years War.

Folk memories of this were very strong and may have accounted for the way that English cities divided themselves up into sectarian areas that were pretty violent between themselves. Even the football teams were sectarian: Manchester City are the Protestant, local team and United are supported by Catholics and people for outside the city.

13 November 2005 at 19:49  

I don't think anyone thinks Arabia is a serious military threat to Europe, or will become one in the next century/foreseable future. However demographically it is much more likely that Britain and certainly Europe will become majority Muslim - apparently in the Netherlands at present 2 Muslim babies are born per 1 non Muslim, if so that indicates that the Netherlands are almost certain to become majority-Muslim in the future.

The closest parrallel to probably-overblown fears of 19th century Catholicism in England seems to me not Muslims in Europe, but the modern American fear of Mexican immigration into the USA. The growth of Islam and Islamism in Europe seems of quite a different order in terms of both demographics and cultural differences.

14 November 2005 at 00:19  

While I'd agree in a general sense that some of the anti-Muslim stuff in the media resembles anti-Popery in the 19th Century in terms of its unpleasantness, in other respects the comparison doesn't hold water. The reality was, and is - as someone who has the misfortune to live in what was probably the most Calvinist country in history - that Catholics and Calvinists, Scots and Irish, were and are remarkably similar in terms of their social outlook.

14 November 2005 at 01:59  

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