17 November 2001  
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Would you die for your faith?
In the age of Christian indifference, Katie Grant admires the zeal of Muslims who are prepared to die for their beliefs At the risk of being accused of treason and sedition — not a novel thing in my family — I admit to having a certain admiration for the young fundamentalist Muslims, with their east London or northern accents, eschewing home comforts to go off to fight for the faith of their fathers. They face the privations of cave-dwelling, the dangers of mortal conflict, and an uncertain welcome if they survive and return to Plaistow, Luton, Crawley, Birmingham or Burnley.

I’m not sure about the other places, but Burnley is no stranger to treason and sedition. My family comes from there. Our home, Towneley Hall (now owned by the Burnley Corporation), was once a centre of that other fundamentalist religion, recusant Catholicism. After the saying of Mass became illegal in 1559, we, too, were viewed with the deepest suspicion for having allegiances that ranked above Queen, country or government.

John Towneley, my ancestor, was heavily fined by Elizabeth I’s Inquisition Council, and went to prison several times. Eventually, in order that his 14 children should not have the satisfaction of claiming for their father a martyr’s crown, John was released from prison, mortally sick and almost blind, to be confined instead to his Towneley estates. His friend Sir Thomas Fitzherbert, from whom I am descended on my mother’s side, was also stubbornly Catholic. He died in the Tower.

Ever since I can remember, therefore, the idea of dying for your faith has been held up as a pretty splendid, if not heroic, thing to do. And Towneley heroes were not confined to the Reformation. Hearing Mass in the tiny oratory built on to the end of our drawing-room at Dyneley — the house in which the Towneley bailiff used to live and where John and his family heard Mass in secret using an altar that could be folded up to look like a wardrobe — my five sisters, my brother and I often found ourselves sitting next to a small and very ancient leather frame enclosing a piece of hair. The legend reads, ‘My cousin Frank Towneley’s haire, who suffered for his prince August 10th 1746’. His prince was Bonnie Prince Charlie (his brother was the prince’s tutor), and Uncle Frank was eventually hanged, drawn and quartered for his part in trying to restore a Catholic monarch to Britain. For many years my family kept Uncle Frank’s severed head in a basket and passed it round after dinner.

So when I hear people such as the 22-year-old accountant Mohammed Abdullah from Luton saying, ‘Our religious duty comes before everything else’, it has a certain resonance. Of course, Mr Abdullah’s religious and social history is entirely different from mine. Since Charles Martel’s victory at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 — a battle that spared my family and the rest of the people on these islands the prospect of Christian martyrdom in the 8th century — Islam and Christianity have gone their separate ways. Had that battle been lost, as Gibbon tells us, ‘the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohammed’.

In the event it took the crisis precipitated by Henry VIII to set the English the ultimate test. When the Christian schism came, martyrs were, of course, claimed on both sides. Many, for example the Norfolks, cannily swayed with the wind. They were well rewarded. Families such as mine, who stuck willy-nilly to their guns, were derided as misguided fundies, traitors who were quite out of step with the more doctrinally enlightened and modern times in which they were living.

My family remains in many ways defined by its history. So, when I hear adjectives that once would have applied to us being applied now to keen young Muslims, it is impossible not to feel a certain frisson.

Moreover, I have found myself wondering if I, despite the recusant blood running through my veins, would rise, like 26-year-old Abu Yahya from Plaistow, to the challenge of defending my religion if called to do so. Would you? To push this question even further, if we were invaded by an Islamic state, would you, in order to save your life and the lives of your children, bow your head and perform the Salat if told to do so? Is not the fact that Muslims find this question (with appropriate reversals) easier to answer than Christians rather shocking?

It is perfectly true that Christians are specifically forbidden to seek martyrdom, something that caused Sir Thomas More mental agonies when awaiting his inevitable execution. But there is a difference between seeking martyrdom and accepting death. The 11 September hijackers (or the ones who knew the game plan) and the Muslims who are now clamouring to suffer in the service of Allah would not qualify for martyrdom under Christian definitions. Christians believe that seeking martyrdom is a wicked thing since it denotes the sin of pride.

But it is not fear of the sin of pride that would stop the British being martyrs now; it is the sin of indifference. Moreover, I have a suspicion that, faced with the threat ‘convert or die’, the instincts of even Catholic and Anglican bishops would be to compromise.

Since Vatican II, Catholics could certainly do so. Indeed, some commentators, such as the French academician Jean Guitton, appear to believe that Catholicism has no specific doctrine to advance; it should merely assist in deepening individual perceptions of God. The days of exclusivity are gone. What all contemporary Christians should be working towards is a relativist interpretation of religion in which the form of your worship matters less than the depth of your spiritual experience. In times in which, according to the Vatican II Decree on Missions, Ad Gentes, ‘nova exsurgit humanitatis conditio’, Christians should play down uniqueness.

I think it was this new emphasis on syncretism that inspired Cardinal Lustiger, then Archbishop of Paris, to declare in 1981, ‘I am a Jew. For me the two religions are one.’ He was, naturally, immediately contradicted by the Chief Rabbi, but you cannot say that the cardinal was not trying. Who knows what Monsignor Georges Darboy, one of his predecessors in the archiepiscopal chair would have thought? It is little more than a century since his martyrdom in the Paris commune.

And where does this kind of thinking leave me and my fundamentalist sympathies? Out of kilter, it seems, with the Christian world. For, while I have no wish to be martyred or to engage in religious wars, it seems an enviable thing to have something beyond worldly considerations for which you would be prepared to lay down your life.

Of course, some of those young men rushing off to Afghanistan are full of nonsense. Of course, some are using Islam as a peg on which to hang rather less noble ambitions than to die for Allah’s sake. But Islam has retained something that Christianity has lost: an ability to summon people to its support and not have them ask, ‘What on earth for?’

Some people may feel that what I deem a loss is actually Christianity’s gain; that indifference is better than fundamentalism. But, as I watch the Abduls and Aftabs go to meet their fates, I think about John Towneley and Uncle Frank. It is probably a treasonable thought, but it may be that, although I disagree with the causes that would-be Muslim martyrs are espousing, in the fibre of my being I have more in common with them than with many of my apparently more sophisticated friends and neighbours.

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