One of the most surreal events of the Spanish Inquisition, was the “Auto da Fe”, a ritual procession that took the victim to his or her punishment. The “guilty” would be dressed in a special yellow garment and a long pointed cap, both strangely decorated with hellish images of effigies, flames, and demons.
The term “Auto da Fe” means “act of faith”, and later came to mean burning at the stake. The last such event occurred in Mexico in 1850, yet, today, we still suffer from the Inquisition’s ailment: if you do not abide by my faith, hellfire and brimstone will annihilate you.
Today, it is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that represents that flagrant extremism, inflicting religious diktat and cruelty on the planet. The group’s aim, an “Islamic Caliphate” that is neither Islamic nor a Caliphate, horrifies everyone with beheadings and the oppression of minorities such as Christians and Yezidis. It has even managed to shake a hesitant US President Barack Obama into military action, a noticeable irony given his policy of withdrawal from Iraq.
As horrible as ISIL is, the Inquisition provides a telling parallel. When it began in France in the 12th century, the Inquisition also persecuted minorities. Beguines, Hussites, Waldensians, and Cathars, groups we have barely heard of, came under its knife and were annihilated. Its ardent Catholicism ultimately led to the the religious wars of Europe, echoes of today’s Sunni-Shia clashes that ISIL feeds on.
When it began in France in the 12th century, the Inquisition also persecuted minorities. Beguines, Hussites, Waldensians and Cathars, groups we have barely heard of, came under its knife and were annihilated. Its ardent Catholicism ultimately led to the the religious wars of Europe, echoes of today’s Sunni-Shia clashes that ISIL feeds on.
Unlike the Inquisition, ISIL is a modern phenomenon, a child of the social media as Iason Athanasiadis describes and not just a throwback to the Middle Ages. But, what it and the Inquisition share, beyond time, is the chronic human compulsion to destroy in the name of a grand cause.
Both demonstrate how carried away humans can be by an “idee fixe”; auto da fes and horrible beheadings can become desirable if the goal is lofty enough. (If ISIL and the Inquisition met in some other era, would they annihilate or develop some understanding of the extremes?)
This is not just a religious proclivity, political ideologies also delve in these depths of darkness. However, acting under God’s command seems to bring out a special zeal for nastiness.
The destructive acts almost serve as evidence of the intensity of faith and, perversely, being closer to the deity. Both are a measure of a world upside down, good utilised for evil, and evil presented as good.
A religious literalism also lies behind these wild distortions. A text is read as concrete fact, rather than allegory.
When extremist settlers see the village of Anata in the West Bank, they see biblical Jewish Anatot, not a living Arab village. When evangelical Christians think of Jerusalem, they see the apocalypse and the end-times, not a living city, holy to three faiths.
Extremists are trying to re-enact the habits of 1,400 years ago down to dress code and facial hair. So it also was with church dogma and its enforcement mechanism, the Inquisition.
Black and white world
All are attempts at applying a text from long ago in a new and different world. Many of these religious texts were metaphorical and not meant to be understood literally. ISIL or the Inquisition offer instead the comforting (and deadening) certainties of a black and white world. The living dynamics of religious discovery are set in amber, and then violence committed in their name.
It’s easy for most to see the evil in ISIL, but the view is less clear when the extremist is one of our own. In some locales in Syria and Iraq, there is support for ISIL because it provides locally what their governments did not. As the victims of Auto da Fe marched in their demeaning costumes, hundreds of average citizens watched passively, if not happily. Millions of European Christians supported the Inquisition without question. The radical just makes the bigotry in all of us into an unchecked higher mission. Indeed, whole societies are still in danger of being taken in by the lure of blind faith or national glory – the risk is not just “over there” or “way back when”.
In 1857, Herman Melville wrote a book called “The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade” that involved the Devil as a con-man on a Mississippi steamboat. It is an allegory for how easily people can be taken in, and the author dedicated the book to the “victims of Auto da Fe”. Whether in the deserts of Iraq or the churches of Spain, “the confidence man”, or con man, is crucial in turning higher purpose into dark compacts. His masquerade can win, and the world turned upside down, unless we defy it.
Despite the very human foibles that ISIL and the Inquisition represent, there is a way out. Many sense that, beyond the con, there is a good to be pursued that is real, harmonic with a larger order, and that is not the product of manipulation nor the generator of misery. The question is how.
Realisation and verification
William Chittick, a scholar of Islam, differentiates between the Islamic terms “Taqlid” and “Tahqiq“. The former means imitation of an authority, the latter, realisation or verification using mind, heart, and personal experience. ISIL and the Inquisition contain a whole lot of Taqlid/imitation, and far from enough personal realisation and verification. Similarly, avoiding dissent is also a hallmark of cult thinking, including in the Middle East and the beginning of the spiral towards blind behaviour.
Tahqiq/verification and the ability to dissent are crucial in avoiding a repeat of dark human extremes. The weeds of extremists take root and grow wherever independent thought is discouraged. The antidote is a personal decision to double and triple check whether individual or group assumptions are truly correct. Without them, the con man has a field day.
The real act of faith is not the exciting masquerade or the auto da fe, it’s in the hard work of creating a world that is right side up by melting away cultural fixations, shedding the shackles of dogma, and gaining that refreshing freedom of mind and spirit that can only be earned, and that no confidence man can give.
John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as Political Adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.