Fear and loathing in Trafalgar Square

Why Muslims are the new Catholics, why the Orange Order isn't racist, and why moan about the weather?

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics
  • The new Catholics

A Guardian/ICM poll published on Monday claims that one in three British Muslims said they or their family had experienced personal abuse because of their faith – and that sixty-nine percent feel they are not regarded as an integral part of British life.

How much of this concern is warranted is a moot point. More rampant than Islamophobia since 11 September has been a tangible increase in the fear that anti-Muslim feeling is on the rise – what might be called Islamophobophobia. No wonder Muslims feel scared, when they are told relentlessly by sections of the media that they have much to be scared of.

This is not to say that Muslims’ fears are totally unjustified. I have heard arguments articulated in the press and inarticulated in the pub that are a cause for concern, to the effect that Muslims are irrational and fanatical, and that they would happily convert Britain to Islam. A section of white Britons do view Muslims as the ‘enemy within’.

This all sounds familiar. For hundreds of years, many regarded Roman Catholics in Britain with suspicion for similar reasons. Just as Muslims are regarded as displaying more affinity with Muslims abroad than with fellow citizens at home, so Catholics were viewed as having loyalty to a foreign power – Rome.

For every Guy Fawkes or Mary Queen of Scots then plotting against the establishment with the aid of a foreign power, today we hear stories of disillusioned Muslim youths from Burnley or Birmingham going off to fight against British troops in Afghanistan. Yet these figures are sensational exceptions. Today, as in the past, affinity to the ‘host country’ is the general rule among Catholics and Muslims.

Catholics were viewed suspiciously because of what was seen as a blind devotion to a ‘superstitious’ faith. Consider a leading article from The Times in 1850, shortly after the Vatican had restored the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England without consulting the British government. ‘The Thunderer’ talked of the devious language employed by Rome being ‘artful, humble and cajoling, seizing on every popular topic, enlisting in its behalf every claptrap argument, and systematically employing reasoning the validity of which the Sophist himself would be the last to recognise’.

That was written during Popular Protestantism’s last gasp, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, anti-Catholicism had become a non-issue. The rise of nationalism in the late-nineteenth century played a large role, as Britons increasingly defined themselves as ‘not German’ and ‘not French’, rather than simply ‘not Catholic’. That Catholics displayed their loyalty by fighting for Britain in two world wars was important, too, as was the decline in religious worship.

Finally, sectarianism was largely displaced by racism. With the rise of postwar immigration, there emerged a much more visible ‘other’ in the British landscape. Whereas people were previously ‘suspected’ of being Roman Catholics, blacks and Asians were by definition visibly different. Catholics stopped being Papists and became ‘white’. Thus, in a depressing sense, Muslims have become the new Catholics.

  • Colour-blind bigotry

England football supporters who descended on London’s Trafalgar Square to celebrate the team’s 3-0 triumph over Denmark on Saturday might not be convinced by the above thesis.

Popular Protestantism is not entirely dead in Britain, as the Orange parade through London that afternoon proved. The enormous march, to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, comprised lodges mostly from Liverpool and Glasgow, who marched from Temple and through Trafalgar Square – much to the bemusement of the general public and Japanese tourists.

It was a very colourful affair, with a plethora of flags, suits, bagpipes, flutes, tattoos, shaven heads, cans of lager, and children dressed up as King William and Queen Mary.

There were the usual morons in attendance, but the marchers were determined not to let the drunken England fans ruin their day out. Some En-ger-land-ers came by to give their support by chanting ‘No Surrender to the IRA’, ‘If you all hate Celtic clap your hands’, and – with a nod towards the Republic of Ireland’s forthcoming fixture – ‘Come on Spain’. Such sentiments were echoed by some Orangemen, though one England fan realised he was clearly out of his depth when he remarked to someone with UVF tattoos ‘Yeah, we fucking hate the Irish’, only to be told ‘I’m Irish you cunt’.

Otherwise, it was largely a good-natured carnival. The Orange Order is actually multiracial, a fact not often report by the media. The Order is big in Ghana, there are Orangemen in Togo, and there are Orange Maoris. This is not a wind-up. I counted six black marchers on Saturday, and saw a Ghanaian flag flapping in the wind.

As I have argued, racism and sectarianism are not part of the same bag; they are mutually exclusive. Someone should have told the man with a National Front tattoo that anti-Catholicism is meant to be colour-blind.

  • Must grumble

A particularly brainless complaint all month is how bad the weather has been. Although the weather has cheered up noticeably this week, for the most part June has been rainy and downcast, prompting the press and public to moan: ‘Where has the British summer gone?’

Such whining begs the question: what country has everyone been living in all these years? Britain is cold, rainy and cloudy, and has been so since the Middle Ages. We get nice summers every couple of years – 1991, 1995 – but that’s about it. Drizzle and clouds are not ‘bad’ weather, they are the weather. Why expect the British climate to change now?

The tone of whining is relevant. It’s almost as if people perceive the bad weather as symptomatic of Britain’s inability to get anything right. Guardian readers will no doubt blame railway privatisation and conservatives will conclude that this is the fault of Phoney Tony’s culture of spin. Or perhaps the latter will happily see it as a last gasp defence against Euro-creep, that as England comes together as one behind its football team the climate is being patriotic too. ‘Up yours Brussels bureaucrats, with your foreign, interfering sunshine and high temperatures….’

To retro-maniacs it all naturally confirms the fact that the weather was better when we were all children. Ah, yes: ‘I Love 1976’. Space-hoppers, Top Trumps, water shortages, IMF loans, white dog-poo, the green shoots of punk rock. Marvellous.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics


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