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Sunday, 3 November 2013

War on Terror is a millennial task

It's becoming clear that it's not just the US administration that has confused political speech with terrorism, with the UK's police now using similar language to justify detaining the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the journalist responsible for the stories based on files released by whistleblower Edward Snowden. It's easy to find this kind of talk within the US administration, of course.

What a short-sighted society fails to see is that not only is religion a powerful force but that its close ties to individual identity make it a force for broader social change. In the past, governments like that of Elizabeth I, in England, resorted to espionage in times of climatic religious upheaval to try to control this force: the picture is of Elizabeth's premier spy, Francis Walsingham (1532 - 1590). The queen's problems with religious zeal stemming from the Lutheran heresy, (which began in 1517 when the German monk nailed a sheet of paper to a door) hardly abated even with her death in 1603 and continued, in Britain at least, even past the 1688 political settlement that had attempted to draw a line under the issue of the state religion by importing a Dutch king to sit on the English throne. Reforming enthusiasm predates Luther, of course, in England with the scholar John Wycliffe (1320 - 1384), but it was the intermingling of religious practice with national concerns, and with war, during the Renaissance - the era of the printed book - that caused monarchs such grief. On the other side of this window of time, it wasn't until the first decades of the 19th century when Catholics were once again allowed to hold certain offices, that the madness was finally put to rest. The madness continues in some places even today, of course, especially in Northern Ireland where sectarian violence remains a concern for British and Irish authorities.

So if you wanted to you could talk of a 660-year conflict in Europe. While it no longer threatens the stability of civilisation, and did not do so during Wycliffe's time - it would need the new technology of printing to do that - the matter of conscience and of the role of established religion was a thing of millennial import for several hundred years and for monarchs like Elizabeth I it meant the use of spies, secret courts, secret funds, torture of innocent people, the cutting off of ears (cropping) as punishment for speech, anonymous publications, and many other activities designed, on the one hand, to express solidarity with those who spoke against the state, and, on the other, to curtail the actions of those who threatened the cohesion of the state.

It all seems a little outre and odd now but in a few hundred years how will we view the responses of governments to whistleblowers in our own age of religious enthusiasm, an age when, again, we see individuals risk life and reputation in order to participate in a struggle for identity. The first time, the trouble was brought on by the effort to wrest away from the established church the right of access to the Bible in the vernacular. This time, it is due to the way that globalisation mixed with post-WWII liberation ideology has convinced some that their very selves are under threat by forces beyond their control, and they want to reassert control. Islam is a way of life, not just a set of amusing narrative precepts, but in fact a codified guide to living, and many things that are swirling in from the West threaten to alienate people from rigid adherence.

It is this rigidity of response to the issues arising from the clash of civilisations that causes the biggest problems on both sides of the fence, and that ropes innocent people into a conflict over which they have no control. In the case of whistleblowers and journalists we can see that it is not permissible even to talk about certain elements of the modern religious wars. Now, we don't crop ears, of course. What we do is engage in the media in a war of words designed to sway public opinion on favour of our position in the debate. We slur reputations. We might even throw someone in jail for 30 years. But the madness is the same, and we are all involved whether we like it or not.

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