Night of Bloody Havoc

The Evening Standard (London, England), November 3, 2005 | Go to article overview

Night of Bloody Havoc


Byline: JONATHAN FREEDLAND

WILL the children of 2405 stand on street corners, collecting a "penny for the Osama"? Or even a " penny for the Mohammed"? It's a dread thought, the notion of a collective hatred that could live on for four centuries.

Surely, we hope, our battle with Osama bin Laden will have been forgotten 400 years from now. Surely the name of Mohammed Siddique Khan, said to be the leader of the 7 July bombers, will be lost to oblivion by then.

And yet the 5 November plotters of 1605 live on in the English imagination.

On Saturday, we will tell their story, with fire and flame, once more.

It's true that the memory of their deed can seem cloudy, especially as you look around the London of 2005.

For one thing, 5 November itself now has a challenger on its hands.

My own street in Stoke Newington came alive on Monday, not with kids looking for old clothes for an effigy of Guy Fawkes, but with children dressed as ghouls and spooks, out to trick or treat their way into the sweetie jar.

Several porches were aglow with moonfaced pumpkins, their eyes bright with candlelight. A festival that barely existed when I was a child has, thanks to the irresistible influence of American popular culture, elbowed its way into the British autumn.

Even those who will stay with tradition, eschew the Scream masks and instead ooh and aah at a fireworks display this weekend, may be blithely unaware of the event whose 400th anniversary they will be commemorating. Plenty of them won't even call it Guy Fawkes Night. It will simply be Bonfire Night.

And yet the history we are marking is hardly remote or obscure. It is about an act of political violence plotted by a cell of extremists, determined to unleash bloody havoc in London - and all in the name of God. And that, as we saw with our own eyes in July, is anything but academic.

Of course there are big differences between the Catholic conspirators of 1605, determined to strike out at Protestant oppression, and the jihadists of today. Few Muslims would claim to be persecuted for their faith in 21st-century Britain.

They may experience daily prejudice and exclusion, but they do not face a state assault that has driven their religion underground.

Nor have Muslims declared war, as a community, on the British state: for all the talk of a clash of civilisations, there has been no Islamic equivalent of Pope Pius V's 1570 bull against Elizabeth I. That document called on all Catholics "to take up against her the weapons of justice". Osama bin Laden issues similar demands every day - but he is a fringe fanatic, not the sovereign leader of his faith.

In other words, the temperature was higher in the war between Catholics and Protestants in 1605 than it is between the West and Islam today. And yet the awkward parallels remain. Today's Muslims do feel they are on the receiving end of a hostile onslaught - not in the towns and cities of Britain, but in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. Yesterday I called up historian Diarmaid Mac-Culloch, whose book Reformation charts the religious wars that divided Europe. …

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