Sunday, August 26, 2007

I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition

Ian Pindar has a review in Saturday's Guardian of Toby Green's new book, Inquisition: The Reign of Fear. If I am reading him right, the review seems to be a perfect illustration of both the dangers of historical analogy and the intellectual confusion surrounding the struggle against Islamist terrorism. Pindar focuses on what he sees as the book's argument that the Inquisition was 'about power not religion' and the need to 'create a fictitious enemy within to channel the forces of popular unrest away from the throne'. Then, somewhat speculatively, he writes,

Just as Arthur Miller used the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 to comment on McCarthyite America, so in this book Green appears to be using the Inquisition to comment obliquely on the "war on terror". He makes no explicit comparison, leaving the parallels to speak for themselves.

I cannot say whether this was the author's intention or not as I have not read the book, but Pindar seems to have no doubts and uses the rest of his review to draw out what he sees these to be. He quotes Green as writing,

"Propaganda was winning ... Thus soon even reasonable Christians believed in the archetype of the seditious crypto-Muslim and came to believe that these fanatics had to be stopped before they could succeed in their plan of destroying the nation and its way of life."

Is Green drawing a parallel between 16th Century Spain and today? If so there is a big distinction. Far from being a 'fictitious enemy', Islamist terrorism is only too real and addicted to the slaughter of innocent people around the globe - this would be a false analogy if ever I have seen one.

Pindar goes on to write,

Green argues persuasively that the Inquisition's vast bureaucratic reach into the private lives of its citizens makes it a forerunner of the modern totalitarian state, while its obsession with limpieza de sangre or "purity of blood" is an awful forewarning of fascism.

As someone who sees totalitarianism as an historical constant rather than a feature of modernity, I have to agree. However, what is Pindar trying to say? Is he suggesting that the 'war on terror' is turning Western governments into precursors of fascist states? If so, I think he has got his analogies in a terrible tangle.

What the 'war on terror' is actually fighting is the attempt to create a new Inquisition. Islamist terrorism embodies Inquisition values. Just look at theocratic rule today; from the arrest of young men for having the wrong haircut to condemning journalists to death for being 'enemies of God'. Despite some of the egregious aspects - Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, 'extraordinary rendition', the threat to some civil liberties, etc. - all of which I unreservedly condemn, the 'war on terror' was conceived to defend liberal capitalist society against the establishment of a new totalitarianism rather than being a threat to impose one.

I am cautious about dragging out the old cliché, 'the lessons of history', but if there is one to be learnt here, it is that fascism needs opposing. I am not sure that Ian Pindar has learnt it properly.

5 comments:

Dr Hiding Pup said...

If Islamist terrorism smacks of Inquisition values, then perhaps so did Britain's suspension of habeas corpus post-9/11, or America's 2001 Patriot Act, or the atrocities - condemned repeatedly by Amnesty International - that have taken place in Guantanamo Bay.

And I thought we in England didn't talk of a 'war on terror' these days:

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/politics/story/0,,1968668,00.html

The Plump said...

Hi Den

I really don't think that you can equate the Patriot Act, horrible and illiberal as that is, or even Guantanamo, with the examples of Islamism in power. It certainly isn't a new Inquisition. I haven't noticed morality police on the streets, trade unionists disappearing into prisons to be tortured, the banning of education for women, the public execution of people at football matches for crimes such as adultery and homosexuality (sometimes through the hideous cruelty of stoning), the complete abolition of Habeas Corpus for everyone, the establishment of a pervasive secret police etc.

This is my point, that there is a quantifiable difference between even authoritarian Western measures and totalitarianism. These measures were taken, in my view mistakenly, in response to a real attack and arbitrary massacre of ordinary citizens and it is Islamist terrorism that is the embodiment of the Inquisition, demanding adherence to an absolute, universal ideological doctrine (death for apostacy for example).

There is no moral equivalence between the two and it is a mistake to equate well-founded criticisms of Western governments with the sort of regime that would be imposed by extremist Jihadi movements. Instead what we have is the constant dilemma between liberty and authority in dealing with something that is both real and murderous, whether it is Fascism, Islamist terrorism, Baader-Meinhof crazies, Neo-nazi racial violence, whatever. I do think that balance is wrong though, overly authoritarian and partial in its operation.

However, this is why I think that he gets his analogies back to front and why historical analogies are dangerous.

BTW I also think that the idea that religion did not play a part in the Inquisiion is a sily piece of historical anachronism. And, I used the phrase 'war on terror' because it was used in the article. I think that it is an unfortunate term.

Larkers said...

The use of analogy to frame historical discourse is fast becoming a curse. One reads it so frequently, it must be being taught.

The reason is obvious: By creating (and this is a very creative process) parallels between the past and our own times, a doorway is cut into history through which it is possible, given a little skill, to pass a coach and horses. And of course it tries to prove relevance and provide texture to what are frequently opaque circumstances. True history is never possible; one only gets versions. Between 'colour' and 'scholarship' lies a gulf of practicalities, not least of which is maintaining your readers interest.

No allowance is ever given to the extraordinary variety of modern experience which is such a defining fact of our lives. This is quite different enough to render most if not all such equivalence futile.

One thing one can take from the past: Be grateful you not live there.

freeluncher said...

the plump wrote -
"look at theocratic rule today; from the arrest of young men for having the wrong haircut to condemning journalists to death for being 'enemies of God'. Despite some of the egregious aspects - Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, 'extraordinary rendition', the threat to some civil liberties, etc. - all of which I unreservedly condemn, the 'war on terror' was conceived to defend liberal capitalist society against the establishment of a new totalitarianism rather than being a threat to impose one."

ha ha ha ha, do you really believe that nonsense? So Bush and Blair are/were our saviours after all?

No doubt you are aware that in the UK people have been arrested for wearing the wrong t-shirt, or that Bush talked of bombing Al-Jazeera(not to mention the scores of dead journos in Iraq). But I suppose because they aint Muslims, it's somehow okay, different?

"Despite some of the egregious aspects...."

I'd like to see that said with a straight face!

Who's the apologist now, eh?

The Plump said...

ha ha ha ha, do you really believe that nonsense?

Yes.