If you’re caught unawares, the sound of the Allegri Miserere can reduce you to tears. The artfulness and innate beauty of the music is remarkable today, but imagine its debut in an age of religious fear and worldly ignorance; the very voice of God inspiring emotions beyond understanding. But the institution of the church at the time understood it alright. More importantly, it understood that the overpowering effect resonating in a Europe largely devoid of intellectual rigour and courage was ripe for exploiting.
How do the cycles of theism go? In an enlightened age it can be generally accepted that religion has been inextricably linked to the age and societies in which its adherents live. 900 years ago the acts of the crusaders were seen as much more important than the Acts of the Apostles. Fear and ignorance among the nations of Europe was conscientiously maintained (if not actually manufactured) by the Church, whose non-negotiable authority governed the actions and the very thoughts of kings and commoners alike.
To up sticks and travel for months across bandit and disease-ridden Western and Southeastern Europe to put to the sword several hundred thousand people for being in the wrong place at the wrong time was a moral duty by any Christian considered able. The Crusades helping to bring about an end the Golden Age of Islam, there was nobody effectively to challenge the vileness of Christian jihad except the Islamic Empire itself. But they were nor for enlightening; they were for smiting.
And while The Crusades pre-dated Gregorio Allegri’s heart-stopping composition by some 400 years there’s no historical evidence to show that the morbid ignorance of the Europeans had really improved in any meaningful way in those four centuries. People were still being burned early on as witches for curing asthma or alleviating epilepsy – and with full endorsement by the Christian establishment.
For a further three and a half centuries, indeed, civilised Europe (soi disant) continued in the pursuit of slavery, empire and institutionalised bigotry. In a twisted parody of modernising progress, matters as simple and primal as musically-inspired theistic devotion were sublimated by the more temporal interests of nation states. It took two world wars, suffrage, the death of Buddy Holly and the rise of the internet to bring about the end of innocence and the march of enlightenment and emotional maturity. But what of Islam…?
It is difficult now in the hyper self-aware West not to regard the rise of violent Islamic fundamentalism as the product of over a thousand years of petulant jealousy. The reason that 17th century sacred music fails to inspire as powerfully as it did at its first hearing is diametrically opposite to what motivates violent Islam – the former being brought about by cynicism and secularism, the latter by deprivation and ignorance.
The church in Europe during 18 or so centuries after Christ hoarded wealth and knowledge. The institution of Islam has done the same, but it’s only the comparatively recent wealth and power of oil that has succeeded in securing the place of Asian Islam in a time warp where the [obscenely] wealthy few easily manage to maintain the ignorance and fear of the many. But in the overdue awakening of their medieval selves disenfranchised and recidivist Muslims are understandably confused and annoyed as hell about… well… everything, really.
In conflicts as old as civilization itself, the rich and powerful need only to find leverage to harness the power of the mob, or at least those among them with nothing to lose. Self-awareness and the immediate access to global communications have drastically reduced the number of places on earth where it’s possible to get away with this sort of thing – central and southern Asia being it, really. And the leverage of choice – yes the instinctive selection of caliphates, churches and Reichs down the ages, it’s religion.
But even in the developed world, it’s still possible to leverage religion in bringing about popular compliance: the continued British presence in occupied Ireland is still heard justified in Westminster and Stormont as the Catholic / Protestant divide but you’re either self-deluded or a terrible eejit if you can’t be honest enough to admit it’s only been about money, jobs and political face-saving since 1922 (or maybe even not long after Cromwell popped his clogs). It’s intellectual laziness or genuine war-fatigue that nourishes this kind of sleight of hand. But the Falls Road isn’t Helmand Province, and so it’s profoundly shocking to be reminded that it’s only in the last century The Republic of Ireland permitted the most inexplicably barbaric of practices to be carried out in the name of the establishment church.
But some lessons are more slowly learned than others. The pathological misbehaviour by those in charge of the church in Ireland led to one of the world’s most devout and church-going nations turning into a population of church-haters in less than two generations. It is very uncertain, however, just how long it will take militant Islam in the undeveloped world to see the only fundamental in how they practice their faith is how illegitimate (not to mention theologically dubious) are their means to an end of bringing about an Islamic world.
With apparent good reason we now fear a ‘Trojan Horse’ movement aimed at bringing about the Islamization of schools in Birmingham, Bradford and London. Notable contributions to our betterment include boy/girl segregation, religious intolerance, isolationism and no playing of tuned instruments. (So we can presume the enjoyment of Allegri’s Miserere is simply not an option.)
But consider this… is it beyond hope that aggressive Muslims might learn from the Christian experience? As an Abramic faith, Islam already holds Judaeo-Christian prophets as legitimate, so it’s not an entirely untraveled road is it?
But a fork in the road awaits all the travelling faithful. Demonstrably, the Miserere is inspired by and worshipful of God. The denial of free will, the slaughter of innocents, total religious intolerance, belief in apostasy, subjugation of women, parsimony and the suppression of knowledge are inspired by what, precisely…?