The coming confrontations with Islam
Alfred Sherman takes a long view of the 'clash of civilisations'
There is much to be studied in present-day Islam, and the changing nature over the centuries of the relationship with Christendom which began when Islam burst out of the Arabian peninsula and embarked on a career of conquest and conversion which has by no means come to an end. Why Mohammed's musings should have formed the basis of a world religion now encompassing a fifth of mankind is a matter of speculation in the present state of our human self-knowledge; perhaps it always will be. Religions and philosophies which have mediated human affairs for millennia eventually lose their grip and successors emerge. We must take into account the state of Christianity, which is something of a residual force - and should perhaps be lumped together with 'post-Christianity' - when deciding upon our counter-position to Islam.
When comparing Christianity with Islam, vast differences emerge. There is a world association of Muslim states with a secretariat and regular meetings, active in the present crisis. There is no corresponding body of Christian states, although it is Christianity which is under attack, yet dare not speak its name without caveats which allow Islam the benefit of the doubt and ignore its complicities in the present crisis. Christian polities remain anonymous, disguised as 'the international community', but pick up the bills. Have the remnants of Christendom not enough in common, if only in self-defence, to seek to re-establish a voice, a refurbished identity, Christian democracy and world law?
Islam versus us - the historical background
The present Afghan conflict and the battle with al Qaeda is just one symptom of a new phase in Islam's relations with what we call for want of a better word 'the West', which began half a century ago. We have been reluctant to come to terms with it, but it will be with us for decades to come.
The essence of the change was fourfold. First, the liberation of the Muslim world from Western rule and domination; secondly, the Muslim world's response with a new, or rather renewed, Islamic militancy; thirdly, concurrently an increase in what Orwell called the West's "negative nationalism" - masochistic self-hatred in Western self-image and policy-making - and lastly a linked tendency to collective self-deception in relation to Islam. This self-deception encouraged policy-makers and opinion-formers to ignore the gravity of the problem for decades. It is now at work identifying the malaise exclusively with Bin Laden and al Qaeda, whereas they are merely symptoms of a much deeper and more widespread malaise affecting Islam worldwide. Lastly, there is also the pervading influence of Marxism in Western thinking, which presents the crisis in economic terms and implies that generous economic aid will smooth the rough edges of Muslim antagonism or that Islam's economic malaise is somehow the West's fault.
To set it in perspective, let us turn back to the end of the Second World War. Almost the whole of the Muslim world, with the exceptions of Turkey and parts of the Arabian peninsula, was under Western rule. The whole of North Africa and adjacent parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the Near and Middle East, Iran-albeit briefly - British India, Malaysia and Indonesia, and Soviet Central Asia, were under non-Muslim rule. Under colonial rule they made some progress. Their identity was seen primarily as colonial, and their destiny liberation. In the 60 years that followed, they have enjoyed almost universal liberation from non-Muslim rule. Exceptions are Palestine, a special case, where they chose intifada rather than deal, Chinese Turkistan and parts of Kashmir.
The fear of fundamentalism
But there is no happy ending. Muslim countries have failed by their own criteria.
The shadow of Muslim fundamentalism looms.
Country after country eschews elections because they would let in the fundamentalists committed to full sharia and jihad, and outlawing democracy for ever. Turkey, Algeria and Egypt are among those countries which dare not let their electors speak. In Egypt, elections for professional bodies indicate that the results of free elections would be a triumph for reaction, a return to the early Middle Ages. Muslim countries lack mechanisms for evolution, peaceful constitutional and political change.
During the last 50 years, in spite of the vast increase in oil wealth, which Muslims believe was placed there by Allah for their particular benefit. There is no commensurate wellbeing, but rather the opposite. Oil wealth has been squandered, and the full price is yet to be paid. Saudi Arabia, the archetypal Aladdin's Cave, is in permanent economic crisis. If Russia ever chooses to flood the world with cheap oil, Saudi Arabia could be in freefall, bankrupt, its regime and continued existence as a single state in question, its debts unpaid, a vast politico-economic and military black hole.
Rapid population growth, facilitated by improved medical services, brought population expansion unmatched by resources or employment. The demographic balance has changed, with many more young people lacking regular employment and becoming prey to religious demagogy. Islam's message is beguilingly simple - Muslim solidarity, the Prophet's laws and nothing else, hatred and suspicion of the infidel, paranoia. This is nothing new. For several centuries, the Muslim world has chosen its religious vocation over scientific and economic progress. In world historical terms this is the norm, and 'the West' is an exception. We optimistically took for granted that the Third World would follow in the West's footsteps, but must revise our assumptions. Liberalism has no place in Islam. The dominance of sadism in penal policy should not go unremarked. Our liberals and Leftists whose consciences are so tender at home should not be permitted to turn a blind eye to Islam's war on womankind, its sheer gynophobia.
Islam and 'the West' have been increasingly moving in opposite directions and there is every reason for this to continue. There are no major forces for change visible in the Muslim world. 'The West' is materialistic in a manner which would have shocked earlier generations, eg Gladstone's. It is also doggedly liberal. But Islam has regressed in terms of its own values. If we take British India as an example, in spite of all the horror stories there was a civil service of high standard and an independent judiciary. Pakistan, by contrast, has become a by-word for corruption, and the country's economic potential has been seriously compromised as a result. The concept of 'excessive transaction costs' meaning that the costs of bribery are greater than the economy can bear, dominates economists' reports.
But the divide runs deeper, how much deeper is only becoming apparent. During the Middle Ages, Islam and Christianity seemed to have common values. This may turn out to have been illusory; at least it bears reconsideration. By now, Christianity and post-Christianity are totally fractured; the term 'Christendom' is in desuetude. There is no longer even lip service to Christianity in Western policy-making. Multiculturalism, inasmuch as it means anything at all, means an absence of agreed values; it means rights to Muslims in the West that are denied in darulislam, the home of Islam, as opposed to daruharb, the locus of war, but which Muslims define the West. By contrast, Islam is ubiquitous in its own home. There, it is a fact, not a concept, an identity as well as a faith. There is no agreement on a blueprint for an Islamic state, other than the sharia, which leaves major questions unanswered. The differences between Morocco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan inter alia are not even conceptualised. It is all very well to hark back to a caliphate, but that did not last very long, and there is no sign that existing Arab states would compromise their own sovereignty by moving towards one. Experience worldwide does not inspire hope for compromise, a viable alternative to Western models. Is there a possible compromise between the prohibition of interest and a modern banking system essential to a modern economy? Can the treatment of women by the Taleban and Saudis and other Muslim states go hand in hand with a working modern society? Muslim solidarity is primarily against the West, without positive content. Hence a determined Western response, as after September 11th, is making headway, which gives the lie to the fainthearts and defeatists.
For centuries, Islam advanced by conquest as well as conversion. When it fell under foreign rule there was no backsliding. Its economic failures have paradoxically expanded it by mass migration, an issue with which Western societies have so far lacked the nerve to grapple - hence the growing, indigestible colonies in Christian heartlands, fifth columns feted and privileged. I shall deal with the causes and effects of Muslim colonisation of Britain in a subsequent article. Here, we must tie up the loose ends left by September 11th and the Afghan war.
What now ?
Overt opposition to the war coalition has been less than was feared. Tergiversation in Saudi Arabia, foot-dragging in Egypt, anti-war demonstrations occasionally put down by force in Pakistan and Palestine, riots which make good television, flag burnings - the flags sometimes provided by visiting TV crews - alter nothing. After all, only in the West can parliaments pronounce. The US and its allies have enjoyed a free hand in Afghanistan. Bin Laden may be a popular hero, but no Arab government wants him poaching on their preserves; they would prefer him as a dead martyr.
Hence the main vocal and effective opposition to the Afghan war is voiced in the US and UK. I leave others to deal with it. As far as the Muslim world is concerned, the US has had to come for help, accord political safe conduct to terrorist regimes like Iran and Syria, and turn a blind eye to much else there in return for lip service to international unity. The Taleban and al-Qaeda suddenly lack allies.
Doubtless new scourges will emerge in due course. The backlog of sentiment created by the Afghan war will last for some months yet and exercise the ingenuity of demagogues in two continents. But the West has won.
The main losers will be the bien pensants and reformers in the Muslim world who had hoped sincerely for a coming together of East and West and a closing of the gap. There are some fine people among them. With Egypt and Algeria moving towards extremism at home and war abroad, with Palestine further from peace than ever, with Pakistan's policies oriented exclusively towards struggle with India - and vice versa - the West has gained the initiative in the relationship more by luck than judgement. Bin Laden overreached himself and forced America to fight back. But
no-one in America, or here for that matter, is mapping the continuation, the implications, the ramifications of that struggle. At present, no-one is seeking the wider initiative, a path for the Christian and post-Christian world to rally in the face of an attack of which Bin Laden and his allies are protagonists. 'The West' cannot afford to be passive, but should take the initiative in all things for which history has fitted us. In other words, the answer to Bin Laden should be a question: 'what are we for right now and in the future?' - not just 'What are we against?' Civilisations survive or fail thanks to their inner strength of purpose. The question of the day is what Christian civilisation stands for. If we fail to answer this question satisfactorily, our counter-attacks, however massive, will prove ultimately ineffectual.
Sir Alfred Sherman was a co-founder of the centre for Policy Studies and an adviser to Margaret Thatcher
Derek Turner, 37 year old journalist and editor of .....
- That is sadly no longer with us.
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