An article by Doug Saunders in The Globe and Mail today looks at the “Muslim tide” in the west and our own capacity for fear, including our fear of Italian or Irish Catholics.
The unease I felt on the sidewalks and buses of our London neighbourhood was not a novel sensation.
If I had lived there a dozen decades earlier, I would have watched the streets fill with suspicious-looking men and women wearing identity-concealing head scarves. Their families were widely believed to belong to an alien civilization. They segregated themselves from the native-born population, were guided by a deeply conservative religion that seemed at odds with modern values, and had the world’s highest reproduction rate. And they were using my neighbourhood to plot a wave of terrorist attacks that killed more Londoners and caused more political alarm than the jihadist attacks of the new millennium.
Today, the Irish Catholics I’m describing are simply part of the neighbourhood’s mix, their pubs and churches an integral part of London’s culture. But for seven decades, Roman Catholics and East European Jews were widely regarded as disloyal, impossible-to-integrate members of an outside civilization. And not just in Britain: If you lived in Canada or the United States in 1950, you would have been aware of a certain type of immigrant seemingly determined to impose their values on their new home – guided by a religion that was not so much a faith as an ideology of conquest.
One of the bestselling books of the period, American Freedom and Catholic Power by Paul Blanshard, argued that Catholic culture is “a survival of mediaeval authoritarianism that has no rightful place in the democratic American environment.” The book was endorsed by Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein, and had great influence in Congress and academia.
In Canada, Italians, along with most other southern European Catholics, were classed as “non-preferred.” One government memo of the time said of the Italian Catholic worker: “even his civilization seems so different that I doubt if he could even become an asset to our country.” Outside of Quebec, it was quite normal to describe Catholic immigrants as an unwelcome and dangerous addition – and their “civilization” probably appeared (and in some ways was) more alien to Anglo-Americans than that of most urban Muslims today.
These statements sound like grotesque religious prejudice today, but to many they seemed well-justified at the time. After all, most Catholic countries had fallen to fascism or religious extremism; Catholic immigrant neighbourhoods were crime-ridden, violent and impoverished; and the worst acts of North American terrorism to that point had been committed by people from Catholic backgrounds. Who wouldn’t look askance at their Catholic neighbours?
Read the complete article here.