Peter Stanford: Not so much the crucifixion of Christ as the martyrdom of Saint Julian

He was biding his time before handing himself in to the authorities. It put me in mind of Jesus in Gethsemane

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Supporters of Julian Assange have set up a website (FreeAssange.org) to demand his release.

The home page is dominated by a picture of the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks and a large-print quotation from him. "You have to start with the truth. The truth is the only way that we can get anywhere." It reads like the sort of gnomic pronouncement you might make before a cheering crowd thirsty for wisdom and inspiration. Indeed, there is an almost prophetic tone to it, well suited to a pulpit. Which is when the thought that I'd heard it before somewhere else began. It took a while to yield up the where and when, but it is John's gospel when Jesus rallies his disciples: "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free."

Making that connection nailed an impression I'd been forming as the topsy-turvy drama of Julian Assange's extradition has unfolded this week: there is something curiously messianic in the way Assange is presented by his devoted army of followers. To them, he's more than just the CEO of a company that has fallen foul of the authorities, more even than an admired campaigner making a splash with a well-executed publicity stunt that puts politicians on the spot.

Even the picture of Assange used on the site dedicated to his freedom gives it the feel of a shrine. The long, whitish hair, the intense gaze, that other-worldly air he carries with him of being beyond categorisation, all combine to convey the impression of a prophet who has suddenly appeared from nowhere, whose outspokenness has been greeted by evangelical fervour and visceral hatred in equal measure (some US politicians have called for him to be executed or assassinated), and who is now suffering a kind of crucifixion for having the temerity so openly to challenge the vested interests of this world.

Far-fetched? Perhaps I've been going to mass too much, but Assange, consciously or not, plays along with turning his own story into a quasi-religious narrative. He describes himself, for example, as of no fixed abode. He cultivates an image of himself as perpetually on the move, wandering the globe bringing the good news of internet openness, periodically disappearing from public view and then reappearing. In court this week he gave the judge a PO box number for his address.

And then there is way in which the release of the 250,000 leaked US diplomatic cables was presented – not as simply a contribution to greater public scrutiny of the actions of government, or even as an opportunity to hold our politicians to account for their policies at home and abroad, but rather as the first blow in overthrowing of the established order and the dawn of a new age of freedom of speech and state authority held to account by people power, fuelled by the worldwide web.

When the leaked diplomatic cables started to be published at the end of last month, Assange's name was everywhere, but he himself was nowhere to be seen. He was somewhere in seclusion in Britain, his lawyer revealed, but was biding his time before choosing his moment to hand himself in to the authorities. It put me in mind of Jesus's preparation in the Garden of Gethsemane as the political clouds and the soldiers gathered.

There is a danger here, of course, of sounding like one of the laboured analogies so beloved of Thought for the Day contributors. "And, of course, Jesus faced his own version of the congestion charge," as one regular once intoned, apparently without irony. Yet what is certainly true is that Assange's followers now seem to be presenting him as something substantially more than just the latest cause célèbre in the global news machine.

There has long been a tendency among champions of the worldwide web to inspire and embrace a kind of missionary zeal. I recently heard Martha Lane Fox giving a stirring lecture that was a hymn of praise to an ever-expanding internet and seemed to be inviting her audience to convert on the spot to the new gospel to digital inclusion. Mix that quasi-religious fervour about the net with another key aspect of the Assange case – its appeal to conspiracy theorists everywhere, including those who see the largely unregulated arena of the web as the only place to get an audience for their pet prejudices – and you have the making of the equivalent of a new revivalist movement.

With revivalism comes fundamentalism. Anonymous – the online community of hackers – is embarking on digital direct action in Operation Payback, a cyber assault on those such as PayPal and Mastercard whom they judge have bowed to US pressure to sever their links with WikiLeaks. In this scenario, the US authorities – and anyone who suggests that Assange and WikiLeaks had it coming because they had broken the law (though no one is quite clear yet which law) – are damned as every bit as corrupt and self-serving as any Pharisee or Sadducee.

The rhetoric between both sides over what our Justice Secretary insisted this week is nothing more or less than a straightforward EU extradition warrant is undoubtedly getting overheated, causing both sides to exaggerate their claims. So for every right-wing American presidential wannabe who paints Assange as the devil incarnate, there is a supporter who will nudge him ever closer to Christ the Redeemer.

To which the only correct response is topatiently point out the absurdity of bathing Assange in any sort of messianic light, however pale. This doesn't rest just on the rape charges made against him by two Swedish women. They have yet to be proven in a court and, anyway, Jesus did face trumped-up charges from the Jewish authorities as a way of silencing him. But a simple internet search – something the WikiLeaks founder himself would presumably encourage – reveals that over his 39 years Assange has had a pretty standard "feet-of-clay" life like the rest of us, with its highs and lows, custody battle and court appearances.

Religious tradition, though, does offer (even in our supposedly secular, sceptical age) a whole range of narratives within which to fit extraordinary human situations. Arguably more suitable here than the model of messiahs, prophets and a cosmic battle of the transparently good figure against subtle, cunning demonic forces is the prototype of martyrs for their faith. This time-honoured cap seems to fit Assange a bit better.

It is clear from everything known about him that his commitment to openness is much more than a job, a campaign or a publicity trip. It is an article of faith. Moreover, his achievements to date are real and substantial – exposing extrajudicial killings in Kenya, for example. In order to serve the greater good of bringing into the public domain such scandals, often carried out with the under-wraps connivance of our governments, Assange has moreover been willing to put himself, his safety and his freedom on the line. That takes an unusual sort of courage.

Less messiah, then, more modern-day martyr in the cause of freedom of speech and openness at a time when the encroachment of the state seems ever more pronounced? That feels more measured. Julian Assange himself might even benefit from this downgrading of his cause. It is a more modest ask of public opinion to rally to a martyr than a would-be messiah. As he awaits his fate, Assange may find himself needing every ounce of popular support he can muster.

Peter Stanford's '50 Religious Ideas You Really Need to Know' is published by Quercus

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