20130301 John Wolffe

VASSALLO VanessaIslamophobia and historic anti-Catholicism: Lecture by Dr John Wolffe (Open University)
By Vanessa VASSALLO for Northern Ireland Foundation
1 March 2013

Dr John Wolffe provided an interesting lecture on March 1st at the Open University, where he compared the historic experience of Catholics as a minority facing considerable antagonism with the present-day position of Muslims in Europe and the West.

According to him, there are strong similarities between anti-Catholicism and Islamophobia, both influenced by secularisation. Secularisation can indeed moderate some strands of hostility, but can also intensify them.

Dr Wolffe highlighted the nature of these strands. One is the constitutional-national hostilities, namely the identity of nation-states affirmed against papal opponents. In Britain and Scandinavian countries, this was associated with upholding a Protestant state church, while in the United States it was linked to the codification of the separation of church and state.

Though the context changed over the centuries, this issue persists, argued Dr Wolffe. In this regard, it is useful to remember, for example, the secularist “Protest the Pope” movement, which opposed Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain; in their opinion, the Pope’s status as a head of state seemed inappropriate for the leader of a religious organization – ignoring that Queen Elizabeth II, head of state for the UK, is Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

The Islamophobic counterpart includes deep suspicion of any acceptance of shar’ia law in West, which — according to the worst fears of its opponents, especially after the 9/11 attacks — may eventually lead to the subversion of historic ‘European’ identity.

The Islamophobe, like the anti-Catholic, perceives the whole body of adherents of the religion as implicated in the actions of a tiny unrepresentative minority.

Another strand was the visceral on-the-ground response to the Catholic migration (especially to United States and UK over the 19th and 20th centuries) and population growth, and the consequent competition for economic opportunities and living space.

An interesting parallel is the negative reaction of some working-class Christian communities to the presence of Muslim neighbours in UK, as the ‘Tell MAMA’ organization reports.

A third strand is the perception that the ‘other’ tradition is subversive of ‘normal’ human relationships. Protestants saw (and still see) the celibacy of Catholic priests and nuns as unnatural, or worse as a hypocritical cover for secret vice – reinvigorated by clerical sex abuse revelations. Not to mention the gross intrusion into marital and family relationships.

Similarly, Islam is believed to be implicated in the perceived sexual and social oppression of women through veiling, forced marriage, and honour killings in Muslim communities — again, castigating the religion as a whole.

Finally, after differentiating what these two situations have in common, Dr Wolffe explored what the Irish religious conflict can inform us about Muslim-West relations.

Local knowledge is essential, as Dr Wolffe reminded the audience, for what works in one situation, doesn’t necessarily have a positive impact in another.

Even so, Islamophobia is a very important issue, as a fuller understanding of the nature of religion can facilitate accommodation and assist the work of peacebuilders.

His presentation was followed by responses from both academics and practitioners, including Professor Stewart Brown (University of Edinburgh), Michael Wardlow (Equality Commission for Northern Ireland) and John Loughran (Intercomm Belfast).

Issues raised in discussion included the historic context of British imperialism; the importance of avoiding stereotypes and recognising the internal diversity of each tradition; the significance of territorialism in divided communities; and the need to recognize and affirm the way in which younger people in particular are reinterpreting faith traditions and transcending historic divisions.

Professor Wolffe plans another seminar in Belfast in September, “to develop and extend these conversations”.

This lecture, along with the related research, will be the base of a new book by Dr John Wolffe, which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan.

For further information please contact Professor John Wolffe:  john.wolffe@open.ac.uk

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