Far West Popular and American Culture Associations
Las Vegas, 1 February 1997
Nobles of the Mystic Shrine:
The Red Fez and Cultural Plagarism
Paul Rich and Guillermo De Los Reyes
University of the Americas-Puebla
How is it that perhaps the most publicized organization in the United States using Islamic symbolism, with 700,000 members and annual revenues approaching a billion dollars, is viewed with horror by pious Muslims? The Shrine, or Mystic Shrine, or more properly the Ancient Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, is an autonomous organization which recruits from those who have climbed the Masonic ladder and become either Knights Templar or thirty-second degree Scottish Rite Masons. It is probably best known to the public for its charities such as hospitals for crippled children and centers for severe burn victims, and for sponsorship of events such as the East-West Shrine football bowl and circuses. To Muslims, it is a monster founded on cultural plagarism.
Like many Masonic organizations it has a legendary past which historians would challenge, in this case claiming that it orginated in 656 AD somewhere in the Middle East. Its buildings are called mosques and its board of officers is known as a divan, with the presiding officer termed the potentate. The uniform is modeled after the one used by Zouaves in the French Empire and the red fez is its famous distinctive headdress. The fez b ecame such a status symbol that it was borrowedd by many other Masonic groups. Possibly the most remarkable use of it is by some Masonic Knight Templars, who sport an Islamic (albeit old-fashioned) fez with the Christian crusading cross!
A competitive Masonic group, called the Mystic Order Veiled Prophets of theEnchanted Realm, or the Grotto, admits Masons who have only the first three degrees and is called the poor man's Shrine because membvrs do not have to pay out to take additional degrees as the Nobles do before they can join the Shrine. The Grotto claims to base itr ritual on the works of Hakem ben Haschem, the Al Mokanna or Veiled Prophet of Persia.
There is still another organization, the Royal Order of Jesters, which draws is members from active Shriners. And there is also a Shrine for blacks, calling itself the Ancient Eyptian Order Nobles of Mystic Shrine. For women, there are groups such as the Ladies Oriental Shrine, which only admits female realtives of Shriners, and the Ancient Egyptian Order of Princesses of Sharemkhu, which differs from the Ladies Oriental Shrine in requiring a very close relationship such as that of wife or or sister. The Grotto has a women's group called the Daughers of Mokanna. The black Shrine has a women's group called the Daughers of Isis.
All of these organizations go to great lengths to project an image of antiquity. Meeting rooms are based on notions of what a Middle Eastern temple looks like, although they often are eclectic and blend Persia, Egyptian and Islamic themes. Undoubtedly some, though not all, of the members think they are participating in very ancient ceremonies.
In actual fact the Shrine appears to have been invented by a medical doctor, Walter Millard Fleming. Dr. Fleming was active in Freemasonry in New York City in the 1870s. He belonged to both the Scottish and York rites of Masonry. In 1867 a friend of his, William J. Florence, returned from a trip to Middle East full of enthusiasm for Islamic architecture and costumes. Florence was an actor and his real name was William Jermyn Conlin. One story about his part in the beginning of the Shrine holds that he actually received the Shrine ritual from another Mason, Charles T. McClenachan, before he went to the Middle East.
In any event, the passion for Orientalism proved contagious and along with McClenachan, Fleming and Florence devised a ritual which would be given only to Masons who had climbed the York or Scottish Rite ladders. This was an era when American fraternalism was growing by leaps and bounds, and when there was an appetite for taking more degrees. The Odd Fellows, Opythians and other gorups also crated additional orders. Brotherhood was elitist in the sense that once one joined a fraternity, there loomed additional initiations that conferred more status.
The shrine eventually established itself in nearly 200 cities in Canada, the United States, Mexico and Panama. One might think that the Islamic world would react with pleasure to the erection of Arabic-style buildings and the desire of leading Americans to dress up as Middle Easterners. That was not the case. Although imitation is supposed to be the sincerest flattery and a compliment, there is a profound irony to the relationship between Freemasonry and the Middle East. No world organization owes more to the region in the way of its motifs, its symbols, and its rituals. Not only is the Shrine through-and-through an expensive effort to import the flavor of the region to North America, but other Masonic degrees also display Islamic themes. But no organization in the course of its presence in the Middle East has encountered more criticism, more disapproval, and more outright government persecution.
Despite all the minarets and arches and fezes, neither the Shrine nor any of the other Masonic organizations have managed to establish themselves in the Arab world to any extent. The use of Arab and Middle Eastern motifs, the references in the rituals to Allah, the hospitals for children have all been for naught in a public relations sense.
Both because of Muslim injunctions against Masonry, and because of the suspicions of Middle Eastern regimes about its political purposes, the fraternity has had a twilight existence in Arab world. Often the lodges meet in secret and in fear of their officers being carted off to the police station. A raid on one lodge in Saudi Arabia is described by a Mason in graphic detail:
Individually and as a group, the four Masons were subjected over and
over again to a never-ending interrogation concerning their Masonic
activities. An officer with the rank of major was in charge and
conducted the lengthy, detailed investigation. And all of the materials
seized during the raid on the Masonic Lodge were gathered and pored over
in fine detail. Later on, George Freygang related that the documentation in possession of the secret police before the infamous raid convinced him that the
Saudi Security had "copies of everything" (George's own words) that had been generated by many of the Masons, including a number of phone conversations.
In short, while well established and known in Europe and North and South America, Masonry truly is a clandestine organization in much of the Arab world - notwithstanding public relations efforts to achieve a better image and the fact that one of its most famous auxillaries is so Islamic in flavor. The present situation of Freemasonry in countries where the majority of the population are Muslims is precarious, despite long efforts to establish a Masonic presence:
The first Lodge erected in the Middle East was established by Scotland
at Aden in 1850. This appears to have been followed by a Lodge in
Palestine about 1873. However, most Masonic development was spawned in
this century, beginning with English Lodges located in Iraq shortly
after the First World War. Unfortunately, the lot of the Craft in the
Middle East has not generally been a happy one. Only in Israel has
Masonry flourished, with that country possessing a regular Grand Lodge.
Outside of Israel very few Lodges remain, with the oldest survivor being
a Scottish Lodge in Jordan, dating from 1925. British-warranted Lodges
that formerly existed in Iraq, South Yemen (Aden), and elsewhere on the
Arabian Peninsula have all been extinguished as the result of political
pressure. A few German-warranted Lodges work in Arabia, having been set
up in only very recent years. However, their longer term future must be
uncertain. In Iran, which has lately had a regular Grand Lodge,
Freemasonry has been destroyed, almost literally, and this occurrence
must rate as one of the greatest tragedies in Masonic history. In short,
in view of the turbulent political and religious situation in the Arab
world, it would appear most unlikely that the Craft will expand in the Middle East in the foreseeable future.
Most nobles of the Shrine would deny that there is any just cause for the animosity or that Masonry conflicts with religious views. Although outlawed in Saudi Arabia, the lodge leaders who funciton there illegally like to think that their presence is benign and that the opposition is because of misunderstanding. Many conservative Muslims would be much less charitable and say that they understand all too well. These differing opinions depend partly on interpretation of symbolism. What Masons think is simply fraternal ritual is to some of the deeply religious, Muslim or Christian, a parody of their faith. A Masonic authority comments on the custom of lodges of displaying a version of the Bible on the lodge altar:
The Bible is not displayed on our altars now and has never been for the reason that Masons are required to believe its teachings. We know that there is a very large element of the Craft the world over who do not believe the teachings of the New Testament. We know that many individual Masons do not believe portions of the Old Testament. Hence, unless we are perpetrating a grim mockery, we do not employ the bible as as a profession that we as a Society accept all its teachings and doctrines...Masonry as an organized society does not and has never exacted this belief of its members. It can, therefore, have no other place in our lodges than that of a symbol...It is a symbol of Truth, of Divine Truth, of all Truth, whether drawn from some book of Revelation or from the Great Book of Nature.
Such a view may seem perfectly innocuous to a secularist, to others it is the height of blasphemy. One critic remarks, "that in order to sell phoney Chanel No.5 on Oxford Street, you would make it look like the real thing. Freemasonry has chaplains, prayers, ceremony, candles, and all the 'trappings' of religion. Because selling phoney Chanel No.5 is wrong, so is Freemasonry."
The Chanel analogy neatly describes the opposition of Muslims to the Shrine and to Masonry in general. When the Nobles pray to Mecca at their Shrine ceremonies, a Muslim doesn't see how this can be divorced from religion. The prohibition of Masonry in the Muslim countries of the Middle East is partly because there are aspects of Masonry, be it the Shrine or Grotto or Daughters of Isis or simply the blue lodge giving the first three degrees which religious people feel verge on mocking their faith.
It is not only the Shrine which is seen as blasphemy. An example of Masonic ritual which offends some, and that shows the gulf between believers and Masons, is the resemblance between the assassination and exhumation of the candidate in the third or Master Mason degree and religious accounts of resurrection. Almost nothing can be said to correct then common interpretation of the third degree that the Mason is saved by Freemasonry, and not by religion.
Recent religious controversies involving Freemasonry such as the Southern Baptist Convention's debate over the issue show that this is a problem that is not limited to Islam. Aspects of Masonic ritual are offensive to several religions. These censures come from such differing groups as Lutherans, Baptists, Mormons, and Eastern Orthodox - and are based on theological objections.
Sometimes Masons assert that blame is being laid on the whole fraternity which should be applied only to some Masonic bodies, such as the allegedly atheistic Grand Orient of France. Of course, attributing to all of Freemasonry the characteristics of one or two bodies is dangerous. There are as many Masonic groups as there are Protestant sects. There are considerable differences between countries and continents. In Latin America the Scottish Rite has been anti-clerical and is very different from other Masonic groups. In the twentieth century, the Scottish Rite has been one of the most popular Masonic degree systems and in many countries, including Great Britain, the United States of America and Canada, is eminently respectable and non-political, or at least non-political in a party sense. That this has not always been the case is evident from a scathing commentary of more than a century ago:
...this Scottish Rite had its origin in the brains and breasts of an apostate Presbyterian, renegade tyrants, Jews who retained nothing of Judaism but its hatred of Christ, associated with Jesuits, conspiring against the liberties of Europe, and for the overthrow of the Government of France! And its first home in this country was the city of Nullification, Secession, and Rebellion; in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1801, where thirteen Jews and three Protestants: Mitchall, Dalcho and Provost, who had received it from France, falsely pretended to found it on constitutions given by Frederick the Great. If Satan had picked the time, the inventors, and home of this Rite he would have doubtless chosen the same.
The suggestion has been made not once, but repeatedly, that Masonry offered a more satisfactory spiritual experience for some men than orthodox religion, and enabled them to be religious while asserting their masculinity. This in fact is a major argument of Professor Mark C. Carnes of Columbia University in his recent (1989) book, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America:
The implicit meanings of the symbols suggest that many men were deeply troubled by the gender bifurcations of Victorian society, which deprived them of a religious experience with which they could identify and of a family environment in which they could freely express nurturing and paternal emotions. The Royal Secret, like all the final degrees, contradicted the assumption that men were innately impure, aggressive, and unemotional. By affirming that men possess traits socially defined as female, the symbols conveyed a message express nowhere else...These ideas and emotions could not be stated publicly. If men had acknowledged that the orders were an alternative form of religion, of family, and of social organization, the forces that had crushed Masonry in the 1820s [the Anti-Masonic hysteria in the United States] might have again besieged the fraternal movement.
Professor Carnes' attractive argument about the lodges offering a sort of bootleg emotionism is suggestive of the problems which religious of many faiths have with Masonry. Moreover, despite what he prposes about the feminine content of the ritual, there is no denying that the lodges in many ways are resolutely masculine institutions: the oaths, penalities, and dramas which are the core of the degrees are anything but feminine. Indeed, the exclusion of women could be taken as evidence that those who joined were as relieved that the feminine side of religion was being left behind as they were that women were excluded. The ceremonies were full of references to hardship and violence rather than to domesticity and family:
Participation in these rituals helped men reconcile the tensions between their upbringing by their mother and their identification with their father's work world, by initiating them, both in actuality and figuratively, into the adult male environment...Leaving the sanctuary of the home for the asylum of the lodge, members chose, if only temporarily, the succor of brotherhood over the comfort of female companionship.
So, in trying to understand why Masonry has not advanced in the Middle East, one need look no further then the problem which also has plagued it in other regions, that it appears to outsiders be a surrogate religion. Shriners would be amazed that their rituals would be thought religious - most of the Shriners are Protestants and the Islamic motifs are just for fun. That is of course exactly the point! There is no putting aside the question of Masonry as a religion, and of the possibility that the lodge offers religious experiences which men are reluctant to share publicly.
Nevertheless, Masonry has attemped to grow in the Arab world. During the last half of the nineteenth century, Freemasonry was significant in the Middle East, particularly in the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, Arab tradition was embraced in the search for ritualistic legitimacy: one Masonic authority asserted that the koreish or guardians of the sacred kaaba in Mecca were members!! The implication was that such a responsible task was better intrusted to Masons than to Muslims, although the logic seems fantastic. Understandably such extraordinary claims did not earn Masonry much good will among Muslim faithful. This helps to explain, though it does not excuse, the treatment the Masons have received from some Middle Eastern regimes:
As at 1978, the Grand Lodge of Iran possessed forty three Lodges, and 1,035 members. This year was the last time that the Craft in Iran was heard of in the outside Masonic world. The Islamic Revolution in Iran saw Freemasonry swept away rapidly, and it would appear that a number of Masons suffered execution at its hands. Whether these deaths were occasioned for political or anti-Masonic reasons will probably never be known, and the fate of many Iranian
Masons may equally remain a mystery. One thing is certain, the Craft in
Iran is destroyed.
Ultimately the story of Masonry in the Middle East is a sad one and the influence the order had with the Arabs is problematical: one Victorian-era member waylaid in the desert was spared by a bedouin about to cut off his
finger to acquire his Masonic ring. Asked if he had given the great high-sign, he recounted: "I did not. The fellow may have been a Mason
- there are lodges in Damascus, Aleppo and Baghdad - but he was no brother of mine, for though he left me my ring, he took my watch, my money, my letter of credit and my baggage." Considering the way in which Masonry used Islamic motifs in a secular way, the agrieved traveler was probably lucky to escape with his life. That the biggest mosque in town may have a bar and has a membership which includes Prebyterians, Jews, and Episcopalians is one of the ironies of cultural history.