The Lingering Ghost of Titus Oates

Titus OatesAccording to Pew Research, 12% of the American electorate believe Barack Obama is a Muslim. This is in spite of the fact that every last piece of evidence suggests otherwise: Barack’s father was an athiest, as was his mother. The fact that he went to school in Indonesia with a bunch of Muslims does not constitute proof. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world; as he presumably was not living inside a bubble during his time there, he was bound to be educated alongside Muslims, just like any other expatriate child.

Yet the accusation simply will not go away; Barack has continued to protest that he is a Christian. No sane political strategist would suggest that this not a smart move. But why? Why he is compelled to be so vigorous in denying any connection to the Islamic faith? Why would being Muslim disqualify him? Why does the very name “Muslim” carry such negative connotations?

Sadly, there is a historical precedent. The name “Titus Oates” seldom is spoken in history classes these days. There are reasons for this: he is one of history’s greatest liars, agitators, perjurers and flim flam artists. Thanks to him, men were hung, drawn and quartered. Their crime? They were of the wrong religious persuasion, in this case, Catholic.

Oates came to prominence during the reign of King Charles II. While Charles brought a certain amount of stability after the febrile period of the English Civil War and the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, there was a lingering suspicion of Catholics, a paranoia which made the age far more nervous and violent than it otherwise might have been.

There were some solid reasons for the sentiment; after all, the messianic Catholic King Philip II of Spain sent the Spanish Armada to topple the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I in 1588, partially because she was supposedly an “illegitimate Protestant whore”. Catholic plotters, including the infamous Guido Fawkes, tried to blow up Parliament and dispose of King James I in 1605. Catholic and Protestant nations were at each other’s throats during the Thirty Years War, which kicked off in 1618. The continous meddling of the Pope in international affairs indicated that Catholicism was just as much a political doctrine as well as a religious one.

This led to an atmosphere in which uneducated people were tempted to believe that Catholics were behind every ill that befell them, including the Great Fire of London in 1666. Enter Oates, a failed Anglican vicar, who was booted from one of his posts for perjury: he had falsely accused a schoolmaster of committing sodomy. Ironically, Oates lost another job, a chaplaincy on a Royal Navy vessel, for having reportedly engaged in “buggery”.

Oates was not a good, intelligent, or moral man, but he certainly knew how to lie and how to inflame public passions. He recklessly began to accuse Catholics in King Charles’ court of planning to get rid of the Protestant Charles by poisoning, so that his Catholic brother James could assume the throne. Oates made 43 accusations in all, implicating over 500 suspects. Among them was the entirely innocent secretary to the Duchess of York, Edward Colman; thanks to Oates, he was tortured and executed.

It took three years for Oates’ intricate web of lies to unravel: by then, the damage had been done. Bigotry had been enshrined in England’s laws: Catholics were not allowed to take up Parliamentary seats until 1829. The English Bill of Rights, enacted after the Catholic King James II was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, prevents any Catholic from becoming the reigning monarch: it remains in force.

To a civilised observer in 2008, this series of events seems absurd. At the start, Oates should have been quickly dismissed as a crank and a hysteric. While there was a radical element, the vast majority of Catholics in 17th century England wished to leave peacefully; the Catholics in Charles II’s government, by and large, served the monarch and the nation faithfully.

However, the label “Catholic”, and its popular association with intrigue and murder, meant that many innocent people were regarded as a dangerous element, a fifth column, an enemy within. Catholics were the subject of wild rumour and fantastic tales of torture and debauchery. The Catholics had to be purged, the logic ran, before they stamped the Protestant world out of existence.

If one substitutes the word “Muslim” for “Catholic” in that last paragraph, and the word “Judeo-Christian” for “Protestant”, and then takes a look at the content of today’s newspapers and blogs, we gain an tragic insight. How little the world has changed; fortunately, our punishments are not quite as gruesome as those in the past. However, can it be denied that one of the reasons why the Western public is not as restive as it might be about the mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay is because those held there are Muslim?

Peter Oborne, the noted journalist, recently proved how casual the public is about anti-Muslim bigotry. He did an experiment in which he took tabloid headlines which reported supposed Muslim “incidents” and substituted words like “blacks” or “Jews” for “Muslims”. He the showed modified texts to members of the public. The public said the altered stories were “racist”, “offensive” and should not be allowed. Yet there have been few, stirrings of protest outside the Muslim community about the originals. When it comes to Islam, we are living in Oates’ world, where suspicion equals fact, and intolerance is a public virtue.

Senator Obama is not in a position to address this issue at the moment; he has an election to win, and the evils of this situation cannot be remedied with a single portion of rhetorical brilliance. The Labour government in Britain says that it is concerned about this issue, but its rhetoric is just as empty as its cache of ideas. We have to content ourselves for the moment with the following thought: unlike in the 17th century, being a bigot now is a source of shame, rather than a form of identification. Furthermore, it is worth remembering that Catholics and Protestants have learned to get along, even in places such as Northern Ireland where they clashed for centuries. The election of a Catholic American President would not now cause a single eyelid to flicker; it is highly unlikely that repeal of the prohibition against a Catholic monarch would stir protest in England. The Pope is now more a celebrity than a bogeyman; he fills stadiums like a rock star. These developments bode well for the future of relations between members of all faiths. The question is how long a road are we going to have to walk to get there. How open are we to viewing each other as individual human beings, as opposed to having our interchange defined by labels? The more we do the latter, the longer the lingering spectre of Oates can continue its nefarious work. The more we do the former, the quicker we will finally consign it to hell.

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