For anyone who is scratching their head over how religion and politics can be so intertwined in in the Middle East, a look back at 17th century Europe might bring clarity. Today is "Guy Fawkes Night" in the UK, a peculiarly British festival, and one which has its roots in sectarian politics. Last weekend was Halloween, "All Souls Night" - an ancient religious festival of the equinox that predates Christianity. For those of us who have worked in animist societies, its purpose - to celebrate the dead, our ancestors - will be familiar. All Soul's Night was adopted by Catholicism - as were most of the pre-Christian festivals (its no coincidence that Easter and Christmas fall on the Spring equinox and at Midwinter). At the beginning of the tumultuous 17th Century Guy Fawkes night displaced this Catholic festival with one of peculiarly Protestant, but also political, meaning.
When I was a kid, November 5th was still a big thing. Like all festivals, it was excitedly anticipated, especially by children. Bonfires were built, potatoes baked in the embers, and hot soup and sausages served-up by my mother. Gunpowder was central to the revelries, and my dad brought home fireworks and made us "stand well back" while we were thrilled by Skyrockets, Roman candles and Catherine wheels. Bad boys took 'bangers' to school, which exploded in the playground and resulted in a beating with the 'dap' (childcare and health and safety have since moved on..). Most importantly, a "Guy" was run-up from old clothes stuffed with newspaper and perambulated around the streets in search of a few coppers. Giving "a penny for the Guy" was the Guy Fawkes equivalent of "trick or treat".
The "Guy" was burned atop the bonfire, in parody of the fate of the real Guy Fawkes. As kids we didn't stop to consider that we were playing out the ghastly execution of a Catholic dissenter who had dared to attempt Regicide by blowing-up the Houses of Parliament. A foiled terrorist plot, as we would call it now. But the historical significance of this event cannot be overlooked - its often forgotten that until its repeal in 1859, Britons were forced to attend anti-Catholic "celebrations" through the Observance of 5th November Act of 1605, and these were often violent occasions. The phrase "remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot" was formulated as political propaganda although it has become folklore.
The Protestant reformation in Europe expressed a number of themes familiar to anyone who has worked in the Middle East. It was driven by the emergence of a radical new communications technology, that democratized access to information that had previously been the preserve of a tiny elite. That technology was the printing press. It was an egalitarian movement, which threatened political hierarchies throughout Europe - from the Holy Roman Empire to the Monarchies in Britain and the Netherlands. And it was a fundamentalist movement - in which the scriptures, now widely available through newly translated and printed Bibles - were taken as an absolute: "the Gospel truth".
The reformation was also the cause-celebre that underpinned brutal and devastating sectarian civil wars which raged across the Britain and Ireland and Germany for 30 desperate years, bringing displacement, persecution, famine and plague in their wake. Great warrior preachers such as Gustav Adolf of Sweden and Oliver Cromwell of England emerged, and their extreme interpretations of scripture led to the banning of music and Christmas celebrations and brutal persecution of Catholics in Germany, Ireland and Northern England. Atrocities occurred on the other side of the divide too - through the counter reformation - and the Huguenot Protestants were expelled from France,
It can be argued that the 30 years war and English civil war ultimately created the platform for the Nation State as we know it, and for the enlightenment and liberal democratic movement which is central to western governance today. Perhaps the Middle East is embarking upon its own "30 years war" now. And maybe these wars will lead to profound and positive changes in governance. Whatever the outcome, a look back at European history can help us understand that a cocktail of religious fervor and political liberalisation can have unfortunate and bloody short term impacts as well as positive longer term outcomes.