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Inquisition: The Reign of Fear

August 26, 2013

In 1506, a light was seen shining brightly on one of the crucifixes in a Dominican monastery in Portugal. When crowds gathered to marvel at the miracle, one man wondered aloud how similar the sight looked to a candle having been placed behind the image of Christ. He was dragged onto the streets by his hair and burnt alive. The man in question was a Converso – a Christian convert of Jewish descent.

In the 15 century, the Spanish monarchy formed the Tribunal of Holy Office in order to direct the unrest of the people away from the throne. The Tribunal was charged with “cleansing” Spain of heretics; the Conversos being the first scapegoat of many. Fear was the main pillar on which the Inquisition was built; and it was this that led to the growing separation of the Christian, Converso and Morisco communities. After the Conversos were driven out, the institution turned towards Moriscos (Christian converts of Muslim descent) and later, the red Indians in America.

This cleansing took place via great autos in every town where the Inquisition officials were sent. The tortured mental state of the people is evident here, who relished attending these public autos as much as they feared them. People were encouraged to indulge in social gossip and confess should they come across any signs of heresy; causing families to turn against one another.

Fear and torture were common tools used to get confessions from suspects. The properties of suspected heretics were confiscated by the Inquisition, which then also charged a hefty sum to the already bankrupt families for the paperwork. Prisoners lounged for years in rotting dungeons in the towers built specifically to house suspects as the reign of the Inquisition spread globally. It is clear that the Inquisition was more about power than religion. It is possibly the very hypocrisy of the Inquisition itself which lent credibility in its dealings with the people it victimised.

Green’s Inquisition encompasses the 315 year reign of the Spanish Inquisition, from the time of its inception until its eventual demise. Aptly titled “The Reign of Fear”, this beautifully worded psychological drama depicts to perfection the primitive instinct of society to turn on itself in fear.

One does not have to look too far to see where Green was so skillfully (albeit covertly) trying to point. The world as we know it today is surrounded by hair-raising incidents of (religious and ethnic) persecution. It does not seem to matter whether the perpetrators belong to the highest sectors of society or not; continuously oppressive circumstances are bound to release the inner barbarian most of us “civilized” individuals are so good at hiding from the rest of the world..

There have been a host of such bloodcurdling incidents in the past couple of years; with the numbers increasing at such frequency that it feels as though the world has gotten used to the idea of bloodshed.

The brutal killing of two Muslim brothers in Sialkot caused the world to halt in its tracks in the second half of the year 2010. Perhaps what made it worse was the fact that instead of stopping the policeman from beating the two boys to death and then continuing the horrific beating on the two dead bodies, the crowd around the four of them watched silently; as though perversely enamored of the spectacle. Most were too busy making videos to upload or send to the media to step in and stop the brutal bashing that resulted in the cruel death of two boys from Sialkot. Though the culprits were later sentenced to death, the two boys so cold-bloodedly sent from this world can never return.

The torching of Christian houses in Joseph Colony in March this year is testament to the destruction that is possible at the hands of an inflamed mob bent on revenge, regardless of whether the actual perpetrators of the crime and the people punished are one and the same. Witnesses of the event recount how a raging mob armed with clubs, automatic weapons, and incendiary chemicals ransacked Christian houses forcing the families to flee for safety. The one family that stubbornly refused to stand down in the face of such hatred was locked inside their house by the enraged mob and burned alive.

The massacre of Muslims in Myanmar this year had the world crying tears of blood. The horrific killings of more than 200 Muslims on that fateful night on March 21 will always be remembered as the night the soil ran red with blood as the world looked on mutely.

The killing of a young African American boy, Trayvon Martin, in Florida preceded one of the biggest racially heated, high-profile cases in the history of the USA. Thousands took to the streets in protest after the perpetrator, George Zimmerman, was acquitted in July this year by a six member, all-female jury made up of five Caucasians and one Hispanic.

In India, many Hindus and Sikhs have been persecuted by their brethren for converting to Christianity. Some even had the “audacity” of becoming preachers of the Christian faith; causing general uproar amongst their villages and towns, leading to reactions that were as heated as they were brutal. The recent killings of Christians in Sinai are testament to the deep-seated hostility that is rising in people today.

Today, Islamophobia is on the rise in the West; Muslims are looked upon with eyes of suspicion. The media has done nothing to reduce the paranoia that has resulted from the war on terror, with head scarves and beards now looked upon as signs of “terrorism”. It is darkly amusing how the world forgets that headscarves were first worn by Christians and Jews of old; and that the beard has always been globally akin to masculinity.

Such attempts at controlling minority groups world over, have led to “rebellious” attitudes, similar to those adopted by the Moriscos and Conversos during the time of the inquisition. Families of Jewish and Muslim origin that were forced to accept Christianity retained their original religious beliefs, hiding their true faith behind regular Church attendances and mass. It was not uncommon for the Jewish families in one area to hold weekly “Mass Meetings” in carefully selected locations, where a large cross was placed outside the door before each meeting commenced to show their devotion to the Christian faith. In reality, Jewish prayers were being held behind closed doors and barred windows, allowing the families protection from the prying eyes of both the Inquisition and society.

Recent examples include the virtual comic series The Muslim Show that depicts the lives of Muslims in France, the joining of forces of Christians and Muslims in India against prejudiced laws, and Jewish families protesting against religious violence alongside people of Christian and Muslim faiths in the USA.

One of the biggest ironies in the history of fate took place, however, when the Inquisition – after more than three centuries of brutal power – became the persecuted, from the persecutor. During the 18 century, the Inquisition recognised knowledge as the biggest threat to its existence. Thus, a law was passed banning a majority of the books that the Holy Office deemed “dangerous”. A list of “allowed” books and pamphlets was sent to all publishers and book shops, so that they may know what material they were allowed to keep and what they must discard.

This attempt at censorship by the Inquisition was the strongest there had ever been. The main idea was to banish all heretical ideas from Spain via the distribution of “indexes of prohibited books”. Included in this index were works from many of Spain’s greatest writers and poets, works that would channel emotion into the hearts of the deadened populace. Any published instrument that the Inquisition deemed had the potential to help the people think was banished from the continent.

However, strict enforcement of the ban only increased the demand for such works. Publishers and bookstore owners hence found innovative ways of smuggling censored content into Spain in order to profit from the dangerous trade, regardless of surprise raids from Inquisition officers that could result in harsh sentences ranging from execution to a lifetime of slavery. Such acts paved the way for the “Age of Enlightenment”, which was a cultural movement that first began in the 17 and 18 centuries.

This movement challenged ideas and dogma grounded in faith and tradition, declaring its purpose to be the reform of society using logic, reason and advanced scientific knowledge. Some of the greatest scientists, philosophers and artists of the age were a part of the movement; taking pride in shooting down age old ideas promoted by the Inquisition as archaic.

The end of the Inquisition came when, during the age of Charles IV of Spain, the state stopped acting as a mere social organiser and actively began to worry about the well-being of the people. In the struggle between the power of the throne and the power of the Church, the former began to gain increasing ground and enlightenment thinkers began to find increased protection for their ideas. Manuel Godoy, the Prime Minister of Spain and a believer of the Age of Enlightenment during the early 1800s was openly hostile to the Inquisition, going so far as to order one of the first inquiries into the backgrounds and credibility of some of the Inquisition’s high ranging officers.

What followed was an eventual crumbling of the structure of the Spanish Inquisition, as government authorities unearthed one misdeed after another. The horrors that had been inflicted on the populace under the Inquisition’s rule began to come to the fore, and soon Inquisition officials were being tried in their own courts facing obscenely-familiar charges ranging from death by burning and confiscation of property to a lifetime of slavery and more.

It has been observed that the general psychology of an oppressed people is not to finish oppression, but rather to try and replace their oppressors. It seems to them a fitting justice should their tormentors exchange places with them, and thus be forced to feel the humiliation and misery that they inflict on a daily basis. Thus, the cycle of oppression continues from one generation to the next, sometimes changing key roles yet managing to remain intact in all its dubious glory.

If one is to end this miserable exchange of roles and the resulting continuation of a horrifying legacy, oppression must be wiped out completely.

The world has yet to see the subdued become the oppressors; yet this blogger fervently hopes that instead of the roles reversing, this world can one day be witness to a sense of global tranquility and mutual respect.