I first read about you when I started to read Your newest book The Crescent and The Compass. Could you tell me more about yourself? Where you are from? What is Your background?
I grew up in England, in the southeast of London. I became interested in spirituality at a young age, and, by about 17, was reading fairly extensively on the subject, and was especially impressed by the work of Mircea Eliade. By my early twenties I had read many of the Buddhist, Taoist, and other religious texts, including the Zoroastrian Zend Avesta, as well as many books on Western esotericism, new religions, and so on.
A little later I began attending art college in London. A friend of mine who was studying literature had already introduced me to the work of Yukio Mishima, and there I was exposed to other aspects of Asian culture, such as the Ma-Xia school of painting, which focused on the idea of atmospheric space, in contrast to the often much more detailed Western art. I also came across the early work of Japanese fashion designers Issey Miyake and Koji Tatsuno (who used to make clothing out of strange material, including bamboo, coral and mushrooms). I was interested in how they drew on nature or on ancient Japanese culture. It was a kind of Zen.
“Cultural Studies” was a part of the curriculum. This concentrated on both non-Western cultures and low culture, such as underground art movements, subcultures, and so on -- which I think left a lasting impression on me, and shows up even in The Crescent and The Compass in the sense that I look at a range of material, from Masonic documents to online Islamist magazines. But, I think this makes for a more accurate and more honest work than one that sticks to areas that academia deems acceptable.
As you can probably guess, I had already been practicing meditation, etc., for several years, but not long after I started at college I also began staying in a Benedictine monastery. I did not consider myself to be a Christian -- and still do not -- but I felt it was important to experience the spiritual tradition of my home country of the last thousand years. We are very ignorant of, and even hostile to, our own religious and spiritual tradition, and yet we somehow believe that, with this attitude, we can identify with non-Western traditions and cultures that do respect the past. Unfortunately, usually people just read whatever political opinions are cool into whichever foreign, ancient tradition that appeals to them.
Why did You choose this topic - Freemasonry?
At 17 or 18, I came across a ritual book, published for members of the fraternity, for the Rose Croix degree of Freemasonry, at a used book stall in London, and purchased it. Not much later I somehow got hold of a book of the Royal Arch degree of Freemasonry. I didn’t really understand them at the time, but I recognized that there was something intelligent about them. The Royal Arch book included a lecture on the Platonic solids -- described in the Timaeus -- and the Rose Croix was, I recognized, clearly influenced by Rosicrucianism and/or alchemy. (It is also influenced by Catholicism.) In Britain, at that time, the fraternity was considered to be an old boys’ network of politicians and corrupt businessmen. This is not the case, actually, but it intrigued me that men who were undoubtedly more established than the average occultist had what appeared to be a serious interest in such arcane subjects.
Later, after moving to New York, I began researching at the Masonic library. My intention was originally to write a book on Freemasonry and the German philosophical tradition, but not long into researching I was approached by a British publisher to write a more general history of the fraternity. The deadline was quite short, especially since this was my first book, but I had good access to archival material, especially quite obscure Masonic publications and ritual books, going back over the centuries.
What were the most interesting findings of yours in this field of study?
When I first started researching, for what would later transform into The Crescent and The Compass, I was interested in the influence, on various political movements, of The Protocols of The Elders of Zion. This is an anti-Semitic fake, published around the turn of the twentieth century. In one chapter, it is claimed that Freemasonry is working in the service of an undercover Zionist movement that is aiming to take over the world. I was, as you might suspect, specifically interested in the anti-Masonic elements. (The text has been widely written about in relation to anti-Semitism, for example by Israeli author Hadassa Ben-Itto.)
Of course, I already knew of some connections between Islam, or Muslims, and Freemasonry. For example, Rene Guenon (founder of the spiritual school of thought called Traditionalism, who was involved with “fringe Masonry” as a young man, and who later “moved into” Islam), so-called Old Turkish Freemasonry, and the Shriners -- an organization that only permits Freemasons to join, whose symbolism is based loosely on that of Islam. As I thought I was drawing the project to a close, I began to discover other links, and decided to pursue these. Then it became clear that this had to be the focus of the book. The subject had not been explored, and was not understood, and I felt if I did not write this book no one would.
All in all, I think the most interesting finding is that Muslim activism and Freemasonry have overlapped, very significantly, over the last century and a half, from the father of pan-Islamic politics, Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani -- who was involved in Freemasonry in Egypt -- to the convergence of Islam and Freemasonry in the African-American religious experience.
It is also interesting to me that the anti-Freemasonry rhetoric of hardline Islamist and Jihadist groups today is almost entirely overlooked, and does not appear to be understood even by experts in this area. Yet, it has appeared even in al-Qaeda propaganda. As I clearly demonstrate in the book, the term “Freemasonry” is used by Jihadists as a synonym for the culture of the West, and, more often, for the culture of the USA. How is it that, even though the West has been in its “war on terror” for longer than World War I and World War II combined, we still don’t understand that?
Your newest book could be 1000 pages big, it's so full of ideas, links and information, it seems that there are so many things that you left for the reader to decide. What are the things that you could say about Freemasonry that is not in the book?
Despite what some people, not actually acquainted with the history of the fraternity, think, Freemasonry is a large and very complex subject. I would want people to understand the enormous influence Freemasonry has had, not at the top of politics -- as is often alleged -- but at the lower ends of culture. If you look at nineteenth century American culture, you find, for example, Masonic symbolism sewn into quilts by women, and etched into wooden canes by men. (One of the more famous examples of the latter is a cane owned by Buffalo Bill, which has the Masonic “square and compasses” etched into a metal detail on a walking cane.) The fraternity had an enormous impact on the culture of the early USA.
Besides influencing material culture, Freemasonry was also a very significant influence on occultism in the modern age, in effect transforming it from a largely solitary activity to a group one with initiation rituals. I know that many occultists feel that they are part of a chain going back to Jesus and his twelve disciples or even to pre-Christian religion, but their rituals, degree structure (for example, Wicca’s three degrees), etc., has been directly or indirectly influenced by Freemasonry.
The reason for the transformation is largely because Freemasons incorporated Hermetic, Rosicrucian, and related ideas and symbols into various newer Masonic rituals, giving them a more ceremonial -- group, initiatic structure -- and because Freemasons founded other, more explicitly mystical and occult-type Orders, such as the eighteenth century Orders of the Golden Rosicrucians and the Elect Cohen, the former of which claimed to teach laboratory alchemy, to possess the secret of the Elixir of Life, and to be able to invoke spirits, for example.
In the following century, the Societas Rosicruciana was founded. Although its mission is, in part, to study Masonic symbolism and its esoteric nature, it is also very focussed on the esoteric traditions of the world, East and West. Like the Golden Rosicrucians before it, today, membership of the Societas Rosicruciana is only available to Master Masons, by invitation.
Will you write another one on that topic?
For me, I always want to push the boundaries, in terms of research, in terms of understanding history or the world as it is, and in terms of self-knowledge. What is important to me, is to say something new. So many books are written formulaically. If you have read one book on Islam, or Freemasonry, or spirituality, or politics, then you have read what half a dozen other books say, except for a few details or some small twist. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be the fifth or sixth person to say something.
I am interested in other subjects as well, such martial arts, Tantra, and African-American religions (such as Moorish Science), and even subcultures, and I expect I will write about these at some point. Certainly, I expect that Freemasonry will continue to be a theme in my writing, but currently, I’m wrapping up some fiction. It is based on the struggle to live an authentic spiritual and disciplined life in modernity. After that, I intend to finish a short non-fiction book on the same theme, but looking at it through various thinkers, philosophers, and movements, of which Freemasonry is one.
At some point update The Crescent and The Compass, but that is some years away. And I am, of course, always open to the idea of writing another book on Freemasonry, but I would only do so if I could find material that, again, would change the way we think, not only about the fraternity, but about Western history more broadly.
Do you think there is an invisible government controlled by Freemasons, Templars, Illuminati, Mahatmas of Shambhala or whatever they are? What is your opinion about the world today?
Frankly, no. In regard to Freemasonry, this split into numerous “jurisdictions” with incompatible requirements for membership and positions. For example, in English-speaking countries, the major -- or “regular” -- jurisdictions require members, and candidates for membership, to believe in God, whereas the Grand Orient jurisdiction of France is a proponent of secularism, and accepts atheists and agnostics. It also, I believe, encourages discussion of politics in its Lodges, whereas regular Lodges in the English-speaking world prohibit political discussion. These jurisdictions do not “recognize” each other, which means Freemasons from Lodges under one jurisdiction cannot visit Lodges of the other jurisdiction.
Although Freemasonry is not a religion, such splits might be somewhat analogous to splits in the Christian Church, and the quite large range of types of churches and beliefs with Christianity.
Belief that the Freemasons secret control the world goes back through a line of conspiracy theories, all of which have been debunked, though it owes its popularity to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic fake that was purported to be the minutes of a secret clique of Zionists. It was shown to be a fake, comprised of bits and pieces of earlier works -- in 1920.
As Arthur Versluis has shown in his book The New Inquisitions, the current fixation with “the Illuminati” emerged after the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, when claims, by various Christian groups, that there was a global criminal network of Satanists was discredited.
I understand that some people in the West use these terms as a kind of synonym for a secret one world government, or for various undesirable influences, but this is not helpful, since these things already have their own historical reality, and mixing these things up only creates confusion, not clarity.
In regard to the world today, it strikes me that we are in a time both of unprecedented change and intellectual dishonesty. This does not bode well for the future. In the West, generally, politics has replaced religion as the major belief system of the day -- and perhaps this one reason we want to discover its motivations and actors in ancient secret societies associated with mythology, occult powers, and so on -- but, yet, it is treated as a sport, in which point scoring is more important than either dialogue or understanding. Compassion for those of the opposing side, self-awareness, and a desire to learn and see new perspectives, seem to be completely lacking. Each side tries to censor the other, either through bullying or legislation.
What about Daesh, the Middle East, refugees in Europe... What's going on?
This is a very big question. Daesh -- which most people know as ISIS -- is considered to be a Takfiri movement; that is, one that believes it has the right to say who is, and who is not, a Muslim. Moreover, it means that it believes it has the right to apostatize Muslims and punish them -- sometimes with execution -- for this enforced “apostasy.” It is condemned in the plainest terms, for example, in the Iranian media. I know Iran is not considered a friend of the West, but we must point this out. It must be clear that, as even the Iranian media has said, ISIS is an extremist movement, outside even normal Sunni Islam.
In regard to ISIS and al-Qaeda, we see very many inconsistencies in the West. We are told, for example, by the British government that it is in a war on “violent extremism” or just “extremism” -- whatever that means -- but yet it recently approached Saudi Arabia with a secret deal to support it getting a seat on the UN’s human rights council. At that time, the 17-year-old Ali al-Nimr was awaiting beheading and crucifixion for protesting for the rights of Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was also awaiting execution for “terrorism,” simply because he had consistently spoken out against the oppression of the Shi’ite minority in Saudi Arabia.
Sheikh Nimr was executed. How is this different to ISIS? The terrorist militia would have done exactly the same thing, for exactly the same reason. Perhaps indirectly, Saudi Arabian, politicized Wahhabi ideology provides the ideological building blocks that are adopted and used by anti-Western Jihadist groups and individual terrorists. Time and again, in its official education curriculum for teenage boys, the kingdom has been found teaching a very strong anti-Western and even anti-Semitic message. This includes teaching that The Protocols of The Elders of Zion is not fake, but an accurate portrayal of a secret attack on Islam.
Of course there are other factors. The West always wants to respond to crises around the globe. This is not confined to the political classes. Ordinary people also want to help, as well. Yes, of course, there will always be people who see an opportunity to make money, whether through oil or through war itself, but I think the desire to help people is real, and it is, we must admit, quite noble. But, the desire to help is not enough You also need understanding. Unfortunately, partly because we do not understand the Middle East or North Africa -- among other regions -- and partly because we project contemporary Western issues onto other regions and other people and cultures, attempts to help have created worse situations.
I’m sure you’ll remember, many pundits suggested that ousting Saddam Hussein would unleash democracy in the Middle East, and would, in particular, cause such change in Iran that it would become a liberal democracy. Now we are told that it empowered Iran. Likewise, ousting Colonel Gaddafi was meant to usher in democracy and freedom to Libya. I have to add that over the last few days there has emerged some suggestion that the then President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, sent troops to fight in Libya because he was worried, less about democracy, and more about Gaddafi’s plan for a pan-African, gold-backed currency that would have potentially undermined the French franc, used in French-speaking African countries. But, of course, I do not know if this was a concern for other states, or a real factor in going to war.
Again over the last few days ago, documents were released that show, that prior to his removal from power, Gaddafi actually told the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair that al-Qaeda was attacking Libya and was aiming to seize the Mediterranean in order to attack Europe. Gaddafi even asked Blair if he sympathized with al-Qaeda. Now they and other Takfiri Jihadist groups, such as IS, are there. Do I think Blair sympathizes with al-Qaeda or IS? No. I think that’s a crazy suggestion. But is there anyone who sees the destruction of Libya, and its takeover by al-Qaeda and IS, as a victory for freedom, or a victory against terrorism?
I think Gaddafi’s question is a reflection of the very confused policies of some Western countries. Blair may have acted with the best of intentions. But we cannot doubt that good intentions are not enough. The West imagines that every culture is a kind of liberal democracy-in-waiting, and that every non-Westerner is just waiting for his chance to subscribe to contemporary Western convictions about secularism, human rights, women’s right, and so on. They are not. Each culture has its own logic.
Likewise, Syria now, after pro-democracy -- or at least anti-Assad -- protests, is full of terrorist militias who are ethnically and religiously cleansing areas, when, before, the Sunnis, Shi’ites, Alawites, Christians, and others were able to live together without fear of such inter-communal violence. There were no sex slave markets in Syria or Iraq, were there?
Another consequence of such chaos is, of course, that there has been a continuous stream of refugees entering Europe, at least partly through Libya. Germany alone accepted more than one million people claiming refugee status over the last twelve months. Many of them are fleeing the war in Syria; many, it has been shown, are economic migrants, from Pakistan and elsewhere. The majority, it is also known, are also young men. Of course this will have a long term impact on Europe, and there is no point in pretending otherwise.
This week, “Integration” is again the main talking point in Germany, after over a hundred women were sexually assaulted in Cologne just over a week ago, on new year’s eve, by very large gangs of men, described as being of “Arab and north-African appearance.” A fairly large percentage of suspects -- who, we must stress, are innocent until proven guilty -- have been identified as recent arrivals. Similar attacks were reported in other German cities, as well as in Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, and France.
Of course, we know that crime is not the monopoly of non-Europeans, and we should not demonize entire groups. I am interested in religion and spirituality, and bring this up partly because you ask about immigration and Europe while this is the big news, and partly to make this observation: The area around Cologne cathedral, where the attacks in that city took place, was rendered a “no go zone.” There is a very dark and sinister poetry to this snapshot. I am not a Christian, but I recognize that Europe’s traditional religion, long in decline, is being followed by the “progressive” culture that thought it would replace it. Now it, too, is in decline, surrendering its ground figuratively and literally. After the mass molestations -- a phenomenon previously seen in Egypt, and known in Arabic as Taharrush jamaʿi -- the Mayor of Cologne -- Henriette Reker -- told women that they had the “possibility” of avoiding rape by walking at arm’s length from men. She also suggested that women’s “conduct” would need to change, along with their dress. From a certain perspective, she is predicting the future.
And what about Eurasia, and the changing geopolitical situation in Ukraine?
Of course, Lithuania has a long history of being occupied or controlled by Russia, and no doubt many Lithuanians harbor suspicions about the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and his aim to create a Eurasian Union. No doubt this sentiment exists in the Ukraine, as well, and existed prior to the Euromaidan revolution of 2014.
Like Lithuania, the Ukraine has had long historical ties to Russia. The problem was that part of the country -- the Crimea, and the former government -- wished to remain in alliance with Russia -- partly for economic reasons, partly for cultural ones -- and the West of the country wanted to be part of the European Union.
I don’t claim to be an expert on the Ukraine, but I am not sure they will find the EU to be quite what they imagined. From the Greeks -- who have had to face austerity -- to nationals of every other EU-member state, who are opposed to open borders, EU regulation, a certain top-down, anti-democratic spirit, etc., very many people who find themselves under the EU are unhappy about what is happening there. It offers economic prosperity, yes, but at the expense of belonging and meaning.
In regard to the Eurasian Union will, as you may be aware, at first it will exist as a kind of economic union, but eventually it will exist as a cultural and geo-political union with those states formerly part of the USSR or that have strong cultural and historical ties to Russia. That is the idea. It is not a return to Stalinism, as some on the West might contend, but about a particular traditional land-based civilization.
The values of the Eurasian Union, however, will not be that of the US or Western Europe. It will be more intertwined with traditional religion, especially the Russian Orthodox Church, but also with traditional Sunni Islam in some of its regions. Of course, this means that Russia will be seen as regressive by many in the West, and this will mean that Russia’s relationship to Western states will remain strained for the next few years, at least.
What is the solution, do you think?
Of course, my primary interest is in the history of ideas, spirituality, and so on, so I may take a different approach, or have different advice to others. You are based in Lithuania, so I will try to limit myself to discussing Europe.
At a minimum, I think that we need to acknowledge that there are differences between cultures and religions, and even within cultures and within each religion. This way we can avoid stereotyping, and we can remind ourselves that things are not simple -- despite those in positions of power in the universities, media, and so on, insisting otherwise. Things are complicated.
People should always strive for creative solutions, concentrating on what is positive -- on what they have to offer and what they need to cultivate -- not on what is bad or difficult. Difficulties have to be seen as challenges to be overcome -- as an invitation to overcome our own limitations and become something greater. If the police and authorities fail to protect their citizens and even conspire to cover up crimes, then perhaps Europeans need to take an example from New York -- once synonymous with crime, but no longer -- and form Guardian Angels-type groups in European cities. The key here would be to ensure that those involved are courteous, respectful, calm, and intelligent, as well as brave, and understand self-defense.
Most of all, I think Europeans need to cultivate values that prevent them from being caught up in whatever political opinions are currently en vogue. Values should not come from political parties. People should read and digest the literature of classical civilizations, from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations to The Analects of Confucius. This will remind us of how cultures have functioned throughout recorded history, all across the globe, and how many still function today. Moreover, these will remind us of the idea of the “higher man” -- what Confucianism calls Chun Tzu.
This will also enable us to think through values that all people understand, but have been expunged from mainstream discourse. You may have noticed that the term “proportion” has slipped almost entirely from the vocabulary. We cannot even think it. But we must. With everything, we can ask ourselves is this proportionate? Is it even on the scale of proportion? Or is the response itself unjust? This is essential in law, as it is in any kind of relationship. We expect a murderer to be punished far more harshly than someone who steals a loaf of bread, and we expect that people who do great things will be rewarded more than someone who does nothing. It is also important, because it means we can both check our own emotions and behavior, and, yet, have independence from whatever pressures may exist to prevent us from speaking truthfully or acting responsibly toward ourselves and others, and toward the truth.
From the response of officials to women being sexually assaulted and terrorized to the relationship of European states to, for example, Middle Eastern states -- whether they are at war or allies -- we can ask this. But I think it is most important domestically, perhaps especially in regard to attacks on women -- no matter who the perpetrator, or perpetrators, may be -- since we know that women often blame themselves for such attacks, and they need to have the mental and emotional tools to evaluate everything clearly, especially if the Mayor or the media, for example, sends the message that the victims must have done something wrong to provoke such attacks.
I also want to address, briefly, the loss of community in the West. This is a very big, and not an unrelated, problem, even if people do not realize it. As we know, in the West, people are more atomized. Trade guilds have disappeared. The Church has all but collapsed in many regions. The extended family is long gone, so, too, the nuclear family is collapsing. Notably, the majority of men in prison had no real father figure growing up, or, if they had a father he was probably abusive. Former Jihadists and former members of other extreme political movements often talked about how they suddenly had a group of people around them, after they became involved, who cared about them. They suddenly had a big family. The same is undoubtedly true of gangs, as well.
It is important to create healthy communities. Citizens of European countries, such as Lithuania, have to do it themselves. They can create their own communities. I recommend people coming together to practice some kind of faith or spirituality, through which one also learns morals, a code of higher conduct, etc., that is not based on contemporary politics, but reflects a more holistic worldview. This could be traditional Catholicism -- which, of course, is the faith of most Lithuanians -- or, for some people, perhaps, it could be some type of neo-paganism, or it could be Zen Buddhism, dharma, and so on.
Personally, I recommend that they join a martial arts class. This is especially important for people who are overly intellectual, for women, and for more sensitive men. The vast majority of martial arts schools are responsible, and will guide those less attuned to physical confrontation. If people join such a school, they will develop themselves, their stamina, their physical bodies, and their minds. And they will be working together with a fairly tight-knit group of people, in many cases of different background, and even different ethnicities and religions. If they join a traditional Asian martial art they may learn about meditation, ethics, history, etc. Crucially, they will understand violence, and will be better able to avoid it and to defend themselves, or others, if necessary.
To sum up, I would say that people should try to develop the whole person -- body, mind, and spirit -- and should try to create community and a future on that basis.