The world at a watershed

I seldom pass a group of young children these days – or a mother with a newborn infant in her arms – but I ask myself  a rhetorical question. What kind of civilization will that little child grow up in or inhabit as an adult? I was not preoccupied with that question thirty years ago. I was confident then, despite the Cold War, despite the tribal troubles of my country, that changes were for the better. Our progress  at worst seemed to be a matter of two steps forward, one step backward. But the trend was forward. Is it no longer possible to have that confidence?

A friend of mine rejects any suggestion that our present discontents on the geopolitical front today are a fulfillment in any way of the late Samuel Huntington’s predictions of a clash of civilizations. It would be consoling to be able to agree with him – but it would also be naive and dangerous.

Know your enemy is one of the most basic principles of self-defence. If we fail to understand the true nature of the enemy confronting us both in and from the Middle East and within our own culture, we will make a terrible mistake.

Question: If the international community could put the clock back would it not now do everything in its power to stop the Rwandan genocide; if it had a choice now would it stand aside as Pol Pot systematically murders millions of his own people in the name of an ideology; does the world not now recognize that the Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler was one of the greatest blunders recorded in history?

The Charlie Hebdo murders have been characterized as a vicious attack on one of the most fundamental values of Western civilization – freedom of speech and expression. They were that, but this is only part of the story. That massacre is just another flash-point it a greater war. Indeed it is a flash-point in which can be seen the basic elements of the lethal clash which Huntington foresaw. Huntington may be faulted for identifying too many potential clashing elements in his global analysis – but he was correct in identifying the essential element in the fault lines which were going to disturb the peace of the world. That element was no longer going to be the dynastic interests of the distant past, nor the national interests of the recent past, nor, in any major way, the material resources necessary for our way of life in our own time. These might be elements in the mix of the major conflicts of our times but they are not the root cause – because reason and negotiation are now accepted by the power-brokers as a better means of resolving our conflicting interests in these matters. The current Ukrainian impasse is an ethnic conflict with nationalist undertones. But is is unlikely to get catastrophically out of hand as it might have done in the days when the dynamics of  the European Balance of Power was so crucial to states. It will eventually be resolved by negotiation and agreement. It is not a clash of two civilizations, nor will it become one. Vladimir Putin’s posturing does not threaten the common good of the world we would like to see our generation’s children inherit. The jihadis of the Middle East do – and the nihilistic libertarianism represented by the likes of Charlie Hebdo do.

There is a three-way clash of civilizations threatening the peace of the world today. Two kinds of war are being waged – a hot war and a cold war. The hot war has multiple fronts. It is the war of the jihadis. Rather than Islamic, one protagonist in this war is Wahhabist or Salafist. This jihad    is waged against two enemies. Its primary enemy is the internal Islamic one – Muslims of any and every denomination who are not of its own pure brand. This is a war within Islam and its outcome is as crucial to non Muslims as it is to the happiness of ordinary Muslims around the world. The jihadist’s secondary target is a dual enemy – Christian civilization and the culture of the secularist West, two cultures under under one umbrella which are themselves engaged in the cold war now in progress within what we call Western civilization.

This cold war is between militant secularists and those whose conscience is guided by principles rooted in a reading of the human condition founded on both reason and faith. It is not a war between secular atheists and the rest because the majority in the secularist camp still profess an allegiance to some personal interpretation of Christianity – as one of its leading generals, Barack Obama, does. This is the war spoken of by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago when he predicted that he would die in his bed, that his successor would die in prison, but that his successor’s successor would be a martyr.

Side by side in the West there now exist Christian and the post-Christian civilization with the same mother, adhered to by one, rejected, more or less, by the other. They have not formally declared war on each other – but, don’t doubt it, they are at war. The battlegrounds are on two fronts: using constitutional and legal weapons on one front; using the media of social communication on the other. The ground being contested? The heritage of Christendom.

There have been victories and defeats on both sides. Who can deny that the witness to the world given by seven million Asians in the Philippines last month was not a resounding victory for Christian culture, or the Humanum Conference in Rome last year for its resounding affirmation of the values of the Judeo-Christian vision of humanity, its nature, dignity and destiny.There are others.

But how are we to read a question like this?

Have one million Brits signed up for an adultery website? American dating network Ashley Madison, which specializes in setting up extramarital affairs, says it has signed up that many British members. The “success” comes despite the fact that the website — which signs on with the tag “Life is short. Have an affair” — has been prevented from advertising on UK television.

Or how are we to read the phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey? These and many more are signs of battles lost by those who have been fighting for the dignity of mankind and the triumph of that vision of our destiny which embraces more than the simply material, a perishable clump of cells. Charlie Hebdo is just one more manifestation of post-Christian culture. But the Christian way, the Christian weapon, of dealing with all this will never be violence or the suppression of freedom. It can only ever be, should only ever be, by the proclamation of the Truth, the eternal Truth. This, by virtue of its own power and its own promise, will ultimately triumph. How that triumph will be effected in the world is another matter, full of uncertainty. But are those who should be the protagonists in this triumph asleep or awake?

The tragedy of this cold war has many dimensions but one of its immediate and potentially lethal consequences is its weakening effect on those who should be confronting the violent and inhumane salafists, whose Christian victims President Obama did not even think were worthy of a sympathetic mention in his recent national prayer breakfast address.

Presidential prayers

The campaign of the salafists – whether under the agency of al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, or other manifestations of the jihad – cannot be separated from the spread of Muslim culture into the West. Islam by its very definition has the entire world in it sights. Salafism is not about territory. It is about souls. It is about converting, by fair means or foul, minds and hearts to Islam.

For all the centuries of its existence Islam spread by conquest and by migration. When it gained territory it then consolidated its captive populations and maintained them in the faith by the rigours of sharia law. Foreigners were an evil influence to be controlled or kept at bay – as the Wahhabists of modern Saudi Arabia seek to do today.

A sample of this civilization’s vision for our race can be seen in the manifesto on women’s life under the Islamic State published by female jihadis recently. It states that girls can marry from age nine and labels Western education as “strange”. The document criticizes the “strange studies” of Western education. Under pure Islam: “From ages seven to nine, there will be three lessons: fiqh (understanding) and religion, Quranic Arabic (written and read) and science(accounting and natural sciences).”

“From ten to twelve, there will be more religious studies, especially fiqh, focusing more on fiqh related to women and the rulings on marriage and divorce. This is in addition to the other two subjects. Skills like textiles and knitting, basic cooking will also be taught.”

“From thirteen to fifteen, there will be more of a focus on Sharia, as well as more manual skills (especially those related to raising children) and less of the science, the basics of which will already have been taught. In addition, they will be taught about Islamic history, the life of the Prophet and his followers.” The document, we are told, is designed to “clarify the role of Muslim women and the life which is desired for them”.

The guide is thought to be aimed at Arab women, rather than a Western audience. References to Saudi Arabia suggest that Saudi women are the main targets. But no one should doubt that the ultimate goal of all Islam in principle – and its Wahhabist manifestation in deadly practice – is the entire world.

A telling letter to the London Independent recently noted that the initiative by the Muslim Council of Britain to open the doors of some mosques to the public appears to be positive in the present climate. But, its author, Dr. Rumy Hasan of the University of Sussex,  pointed out, “it is mere symbolism, whereas what is needed are policy shifts of substance.” These are few and far between.

The British Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, in a recent and controversial letter to 1,000 mosque leaders,  asked them to consider how faith in Islam can be part of British identity. The likelihood is that for a majority of imams, Hasan says, “the two are, in fact, irreconcilable – this would certainly be the case for Saudi-funded mosques and those inspired by Deobandism, with its roots in South Asia. Indeed, they have been singularly hostile to being part of a British identity and integrating into mainstream society.

“We know that the meaning of the name of the Nigerian jihadi group Boko Haram is ‘Western education is sinful’. In a similar manner for many mosque leaders, Western lifestyle is sinful.

“What would be of substance and positive is a commitment to values that embrace freedom of expression and the adherence to universal laws, rather than demanding separate rights and exemptions to the law of the land that has hitherto been the case by Muslim leaders.”

But it is here that we come to the intractable conflict within Islam. Many ordinary Muslim people want to get on with their lives. The imams will not let them. There is no place for freedom in the militant strain of Islam now dictating the pace in much of the Islamic world because there is no place for reason. Not until there is victory for a moderate Islamic culture can there be any semblance of what Eric Pickles is hoping to see.

After centuries of deadlock on the bloody borders shared between Christian civilization and Islamic civilization eventually these frontiers became porous as Islam controlled territories slipped hopelessly behind in development. The eventual consequence of this was the migration of Muslims into the states of Western Europe. In the Islamic homeland of Arabia this was a disaster. For them it meant the sinful contamination of their people and with this arose the sense of mission to save them, to bring them back to the rigourous practice of their faith. This is the mission now in progress among the Muslims settled in the West. The dream of the Wahhabists is that what happened in Anatolia (now Turkey) in the eleventh century will be repeated again. As Bernard Lewis points out in his History of the Middle East, the Islamic transformation of that country was accomplished by migrating tribes rather than by any military action on the part of the Great Seljuks, the Muslim conquerors of that age. After that migrations the Islamic forces moved in to organize the province which had been handed to them on a plate by a process of ethnic migration. By the end of the twelfth century a Turkish Muslim monarchy was firmly in place and Anatolia became a Turkish land. Masses of Turkish immigrants then entered from further east and a Turkish Muslim civilization replaced Greek Christianity.

Hagia Sophia, once the heart of Greek Christianity

With old Europe now threatening to degenerate itself out of existence and with its growing Muslim population now a target for zealous Wahhabist imams, who can predict what will happen? The outcome of the West’s own internal cultural conflict – between its Christians and its secularists is crucial. The latter is the primary force behind its plunging demographics. This suicidal trend is the product of the rampant hedonistic individualism embedded in modern secularism. It can only be arrested within the context of a truly Christian culture of life. If not, then the fate of Europe can only be the fate of Anatolia.

It is hard not to conclude that the world is now facing into an era of  momentous change of the deepest kind. Not to recognize the nature of this conflict, or the character of the forces now at war with each other, is to bury our heads in the sand and to render ourselves impotent when we need to be effective protagonists in the struggle to shape this world in every way necessary to serve the common good of humanity for centuries to come.

Playing with a scorpion: do it properly or don’t do it at all


To grip this nettle danger, wise and experienced heads are telling us, we will have to stop playing “make-believe”.
“If western boots were on the ground,” General David, now Lord Richards tells Mehdi Hasan, “Isil could be defeated “in six months”. The former Chief of the Defence Staff sat down with the Huffington Post (read it here). The PM shares something of the same attitude as his predecessor-but-one, Tony Blair, says Lord Richards. “There are bad things happening in the world and they would like, with others, to do something about it. I think they do enjoy being influential, feeling that together with others they are making a difference. It’s quite a drug. What I have been saying is that if you want to do that, for goodness sake, please do it properly, full-bloodiedly. Don’t play at it.”

The Obama strategy on ISIS

The Daily Signal, the Heritage Council’s bulletin, gives us this take on Obama’s “strategy” for dealing with the Islamic menace incarnated in the so-called Islamic State:

On Wednesday, President Obama addressed the nation concerning an uptick of action against the Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS or ISIL. It was a short address that also was short on surprises.

Obama began with an apt description of ISIS and the threat it poses. In this phase of his remarks, he got it right. ISIS is a horrendous group of murderers whose savagery knows no bounds. Action must be taken. He also emphasized there is a real threat to the homeland—not an immediate one perhaps but one that requires action.

Obama attempted to paint all the military actions taken so far as having been successful.  In this, he probably overstated at least a bit. Recent operations have helped, but the problem won’t be solved without additional actions.

Read the full analysis here.

Mozilla, Mozilla, what DO you stand for?

Some words of Pope Francis on Christian tolerance for Muslims receive a loud echo in a Fraser Nelson piece in today’s Daily Telegraph (London). Meanwhile across the Atlantic a newer kind of jihad takes off yet another head. Some weeks ago the defenders of the gay lobby mocked Ross Douthat of the New York Times when he expressed the controversial view that the gay marriage campaign seemed to be heading for certain victory and that no quarter was going to be given to those who opposed it. The news today seems to bear him out on at least the question of the campaign’s intention.

Nelson takes some pride in what he sees as the remarkable and admirable way in which – in spite of some horrific provocation – Britain has assimilated its imperial legacy of a significant Muslim population. It is a two-way street and the majority of the Muslim minority in the UK cohabits agreeably alongside a majority population whose way of life is still rooted in Christian values.

Would that another very militant minority were as accommodating to the Christian values of the majority with whom they live side by side.

The gay jihadis in the United States have now chopped off the head of Mozilla-Firefox with their creeping and creepy war on Christians and the Christian conscience. For them it’s “no peace, no quarter” for the adherents of a 2000 year-old religion who dare to hold by a belief that marriage should remain what they understand it to be, and the nature and purpose of human sexuality and the institution of the family requires it to be.

The Pope, in his exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, has asked all Catholics to embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to their countries in the same way that Christians hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition. He entreated those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries. Clearly work remains to be done in this area, but movement is in the right direction.

Christians and Muslims are deeply divided on matters of faith and the practice of their respective creeds. Yet the leaders in the mainstream of both faiths in the West have found a way to tolerance and respect for the freedom of conscience of each other’s followers.  No such tolerance is being offered by the gay jihadis who now have all the appearances of becoming one of the more sinister enemies of democracy in our world today.

In 2008, Brendan Eich gave money to oppose the legalisation of gay marriage in California, a mere $1,000. In a truly democratic world this should be no problem. Let the people decide. Let those of opposing views on the matter openly help along the argument which they feel carries the greater weight. This democratic right is outrageously denied by the gay jihad. “You will be punished in whatever way we feel you can be punished if you oppose us”, is their banner.

The Pope went on to exhort Christians to show a spirit of tolerance to Muslims, even in the face of violent opposition. Faced with disconcerting episodes of violent fundamentalism, he said, our respect for true followers of Islam should lead us to avoid hateful generalizations, for authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence. Elsewhere and unambiguously he has asked Christians to show the same spirit towards homosexual people.

Christians faced with persecution – and the treatment of Brendan Eich is nothing short of persecution – from gay activists across the Western world have the same spirit demanded of them. They will be as good as their word and seek to live by this spirit. But they cannot and will not ignore the voice of their conscience and accept a false understanding of human sexuality no matter how many governments, corporations and pressure groups seek to make them do so.

The Christian faith is not homophobic. It is against its deepest principles to hate or denigrate any human being. But it holds, and has held for thousands of years, as its Judaic sources have held, a belief and a reasoned view of what it is to be human – in all its dimensions. The late 20th century change to that “narrative” is a long way from offering any serious reasonable basis for a radical rejection of that position which is still accepted by the vast majority of human-kind. It is this that makes what is now going on, exemplified by the hounding out of his job of a gifted genius, so outrageous, even frightening. The echoes of the worst kind of totalitarianism known to the last century are unmistakable.

Fraser Nelson rejects the notion that there is a clash of civilizations on British soil today. What he says of Britain might also be said of Ireland.

Those who believe in a clash of civilisations, in which British values are pitted against those of the Muslim world, have not been short of examples in the past few days. The BBC reports on an “Islamic takeover plot” by hardliners to seize control of several Birmingham state schools. Two Morrisons workers are suing the supermarket for not being able to take holiday during Ramadan, after being told that they submitted their applications too late. Such stories do make the blood boil, and may lead the less charitable to ask if such people should move to a country that better reflects their prejudices.

But one hears such complaints rarely, and this is what marks us out in a Europe that is paranoid about Islam and identity. Britain is, through empire, the original multi-ethnic state. When Churchill was writing for The Daily Telegraph as a war correspondent, his criticism of the Afghan tribesmen was that their behaviour was un-Islamic. Then, the Queen had tens of millions of Islamic subjects and her ministers boasted of running the greatest Muslim power on earth.

The integration of Muslims can now be seen as one of the great success stories of modern Britain. While the Dutch and the French have huge troubles with integration, and are caught in agonised struggles about their national identities, Britain is marked out by the trouble that we are not having. Dig a little deeper, and the real story is the striking amount of harmony.

But where there is no sign of harmony is in the relentless campaign of a militant minority of homosexual people and their allies from the anti-Christian “liberal” establishment who want to expunge from Western society some of the most fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith about what it is to be human and how men and women should give expression to their sexual identities in a way that is moral.

Reflections on jihad

Is the Muslim world and its bonding substance, Islam, in the throes of its own self-destruction or is it just in the early stages of a dramatic conflict which will ultimately end with its defeat of the civilization it has been at war with since it first emerged from the Arabian Desert in the 7th century?

The third option is of course that it is simply in another phase of that war and that this one, like all the others, will end in a tacit stalemate. Will its core states will once again barricade themselves behind new borders and slumber on until the next phase of this seemingly eternal struggle begins again?

If one were to draw a map of the world today and identify on it all the significant human conflicts currently in progress and further identify the source of each of those one would notice that some expression of Islamic jihad is at the heart of the majority of them – from Nigeria in the west of the African continent to the horn of Africa in the east, from the southern shores of the Mediterranean through the middle east over to the subcontinent itself, the Muslim world is either tearing itself apart or is tearing into its bordering territories, giving new life to that sad geo-political reality, the “bloody borders of Islam”.


A world at war

 What does all this signify? Does it not justify the question of Manuel II Palaiologos, one of the last Christian rulers before the Fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which he put to his Islamic interlocutor in a conversation dealing with such issues as forced conversion, holy war, and the relationship between faith and reason in Islam? This of course was the question quoted by Pope Benedict XVI when he alluded to this same problem in his famous Regensburg address, provoking an Islamic response which clearly underlined with pathetic accuracy the very problem he pointed to. The Emperor said, “show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

But need Islam have been this way? Robert R. Reilly in his book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, sees a pattern of events in history which suggests that it might have been otherwise. Had that process of development which Benedict XVI saw as such a pivitol and providential factor in the development of Christianity, its enculturation with the thought and traditions of the Greek world, been allowed to work in Islam then its history might have been very different. It almost did but in the end the power of the contrary forces which eventually triumphed in Islam’s internal conflicts thwarted it. Islam is what it is today, Reilly asserts, because reason was vanquished in the crucial battle for the minds and hearts of Muslims which took place between the ninth and eleventh centuries.

Muslims today are to be found in every country in the world. The vast majority of them are at peace with the world but a crucial element within that international religious community is not. It is crucial because it is the segment of Sunni Islam which is true to the essential theological tenets of the religion which were set in stone for its adherents by the end of the 11th century and which kept it imprisoned there until the late modern age. That peace is the reason for the war which is being waged in so many parts of the world. It is this peace, perceived as a deadly threat to Islamic orthodoxy, which ultimately gives rise to the rage which is driving the Sunni jihad wherever it is found. That peace is seen as a virus which will ultimately undermine the central tenet of Islam’s 11th century theology. This tenet is that reason is the enemy of Islam, that reason is alien to God himself and the man who dabbles in reason as a guide for his life is rejecting the principle of unquestioning submission to the will of Allah. For the jihadists the battle is the battle to preserve and defend to the death this doctrine and to do all in their power to destroy the peace that is corrupting faithful Muslims throughout the world.

In the early years of Marxist Communism the great internal struggle was between those who compromised their cause by accepting the principle of the practicality of communism in one country as a stepping stone to world domination and those who saw this as folly. They argued that Communism could only succeed ultimately if the struggle was global. Peaceful co-existence was a formula for disaster and accepting it was going to lead to failure. They were right. Communism could not compete with freedom and only by extinguishing freedom and all memory and experience of human freedom could Communism dominate the world. “Communism Limited” ultimately spelled the death knell of Communism. It is still in its death throes and is still inflicting suffering on millions of human beings but the end is inevitable.

The Islamic jihadist knows the same. Islam sealed itself off from the world that it could not invade and conquer for the best part of nine centuries. Then in the 19th century, as its major power-house, the sclerotic Ottoman Empire, was dying it began to reach out for help. Help came but with it came the price of contamination. This contamination by an alien culture has ultimately provoked the backlash which is the modern jihad. That jihad knows that unless it can destroy the sources of all those influences which are corrupting the pure Islamic product, as defined by the theologians of the ninth and tenth centuries then their cause is dead. Unless they are victorious then Islam will succumb to reason. Reason is their enemy. If and when reason is allowed its rightful place it will be their undoing. Reason will reveal the truth about man which will ultimately bring about the unraveling of the flawed fabric of Islam which was woven in the early middle ages by the desert tribes who spread east and west from Arabia creating one of the greatest empires which the world had seen.

Historian Tom Holland has put his life on the line by questioning the very provenance of the Koran in his book, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World (2012). The religion of Islam, as it emerged from the desert into the light of history in the eighth century, in his view may be little more than the initial bonding element adopted by the conquerors of the Middle East in those centuries to cement their conquests into an empire. It then took on a life of its own and its rules and regulations acquired their later theological identity and force to become what we know it is today. But whatever its origins, by the ninth century it had become a powerful religious force. It was then that its theology became the subject of the bitter disputes and bloody warfare described by Reilly in his book.

Tom Holland

For a period in the ninth century the embryo of Islam was moving towards the Hellenic world and Hellenic influences. Had it continued to do so its understanding of the Divine would have been different and history might well have witnessed a great ecumenical movement which would have brought together two great religious movements of the time, Islam and Christianity, which had common roots in Judaism. But something happened in the tenth century which was to fatally thwart this development. An Iman, Al-Ghazali, rose to prominence in the Ash’arite sect of Islam.

As we know the Arabs of the early Islamic era are responsible for the preservation of extensive  elements of Greek culture and philosophy. To them we owe the preservation of the works of Aristotle. Two Islamic scholars, Avicena and Averroes, are giants in the history of philosophy. Al-Ghazali was a brilliant philosopher but he was also a mystic and like many mystics he found it hard to stay rooted in reality. In the end he turned his back on philosophy and in a celebrated book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, he rejected Plato, Aristotle and all their works and pomps, proclaiming that they lead to nothing but darkness and confusion. Averroes was his contemporary and he responded with his book, The Incoherence of the Incoherence. But it was too late. The leaders of Sunni Islam espoused the Ash’arite doctrines of al-Ghazali  and persecuted and murdered all who denied them. The Ash’arite faction triumphed over the Mu’tazalite faction which had followed a Hellenic approach. The battle between them might be seen as a foreshadowing of the Protestant/Catholic divide of the 16th century – with one vital distinction: the Ash’arites triumphed totally over their rivals and the Mu’tazalite tradition died for all intents and purposes.

Reilly quotes the verdict of a twentieth century Muslim scholar, Fazlur Rahman, on the outcome of the battle: “A people that deprives itself of philosophy necessarily exposes itself to starvation in terms of fresh ideas – in fact, it commits intellectual suicide.” Reilly argues that the flight from the hellinization of Islam began with a particular idea of God which took definitive shape in the ninth century. When this idea began to encounter Greek philosophy the confusions inherent in the Koran began to demand explanations and the explanations which eventually triumphed proved incompatible with the rational approach of Greek thought. Then the battle royal began and the As’arites prevailed.

Today they still prevail in the heart of every jihadist. There is no doubt but the sword of Islam is lethally unsheathed again in today’s world as it was in the early middle ages. The question now is whether it will prevail again in the wider world as it did in the medieval world or whether the hellinization of Islam will eventually be allowed to resume, triumph and reap consequences which might bring a peace to the world which it has not know since the days of the Pax Romana.

The threatening conflagration of the Islamic world

David Brooks had an interesting – and worrying – article in the New York Times on August 29, in which he quoted this assessment of the Arab crisis which – in more optimistic times – we used to call the Arab Spring.

The strife appears to be spreading. Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq is spiking upward. Reports in The Times and elsewhere have said that many Iraqis fear their country is sliding back to the worst of the chaos experienced in the last decade. Even Turkey, Pakistan, Bahrain and Kuwait could be infected. “It could become a regional religious war similar to that witnessed in Iraq 2006-2008, but far wider and without the moderating influence of American forces,” wrote Gary Grappo, a retired senior Foreign Service officer with long experience in the region.

“It has become clear over the last year that the upheavals in the Islamic and Arab world have become a clash within a civilization rather than a clash between civilizations,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote recently. “The Sunni versus Alawite civil war in Syria is increasingly interacting with the Sunni versus Shiite tensions in the Gulf that are edging Iraq back toward civil war. They also interact with the Sunni-Shiite, Maronite and other confessional struggles in Lebanon.”

The borders of Islam remain bloody but the heartlands of the Middle East and North Africa now seem far more threatening. The dimensions, the character, and the irrationality of this conflict are such that the rest of the world may have little option other than looking on in horror.

Twenty years after – an unfolding conflict

“It was twenty years ago today” – well perhaps not today, but certainly this year – that Samuel P. Huntington published his seminal article in Foreign Affairs and set the world thinking again about new rumours of war. Just a year earlier Francis Fukuyama had published The End of History and the Last Man. That book was an expansion of his essay in the summer issue of The National Interest in 1989, months before the fall of the Berlin wall on the night of 9 November in the same year.

 What we may be witnessing” he wrote, is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

 That was a very controversial view and for most people it was read – or perhaps misread – as an oversimplification of the consequences of the events of the 1980s. But on a positive interpretation we did seem to be witnessing the end of three hundred years of conflict – sometimes dynastic, sometimes nationalistic, sometimes nakedly imperial and latterly a conflict between two ideologies, the one socialist and totalitarian, the other liberal and capitalist. There did seem to be a basis for optimism that there was now nothing really powerful enough to divide the human race and drive its factions into a war which if unleashed in our day and age might render the very planet itself incapable of sustaining human life.

That optimism was short-lived and the first wake-up call came from Samuel Huntington, the late Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University, with the publication of his Foreign Affairs article, The Clash of Civilizations. With that our cosy reading of history came to an end and we were confronted with the prospect of new and even more intractable conflicts rooted in the deepest recesses of human consciousness, supra-rational and sometimes irrational, depending on your point of view. These conflicts would be much less susceptible to negotiation and compromise than conflicts rooted in political and economic differences.

In Huntington’s view the world had more or less now returned to the pre-Westphalian condition when wars of religion plagued Europe, or to the age of the Islamic conquests and the reconquista of Spain in the late Middle Ages. Once again the primary axis of global and regional conflicts was going to be cultural and religious.

Twenty years on, how does his thesis stand up? Without its oversimplifications, pretty well. At the time of his writing that essay there is no doubt but that Islamic militants were already on the move. But they were still not perceived as the global threat to peace that they have now become, necessitating a global protective security shield which in its own way matches anything that had to be put in place by western democracies to protect themselves from the threat of communism.

While the range of potential clashes he proposed for consideration looks a little too extensive, nevertheless the emergence of militant Islamic movements is enough to validate his central thesis. This clash has well and truly re-splattered red markings along the “bloody borders of Islam”, both the external ones and the internal ones where Shia and Sunni factions slaughter each other on a daily basis.  It is hard to find a location along those borders where there is not currently some jihadist group at work – from western to eastern Africa, or among the Mediterranean nations of north Africa, the Middle to the Far East and into those western societies where substantial Islamic immigration has taken place.

This is a war-in-progress and it is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. By and large it seems to bear out Huntington’s main thesis. The intractability of the conflict can be seen in the  bleakness of the prospects for peace negotiation in one of the many theatres in which this war is being played out in full battle dress – that of Afghanistan and the conflict with the intransigent Taliban.

But there is another war brewing which also has all the characteristics of the clashes predicted by Huntington. This is not one to which he paid much attention but it is brewing nonetheless. It will probably remain a largely cold war but it promises to be war just the same and will bring its quota of victims and suffering in its wake. It is the war which has already broken out within the old West to which we have already pinned the term, “culture wars”, making it seem with that soft word “culture”, a little more benign than it actually is.

It is in fact, largely, a new war of religion although few dare to call it so as yet. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, a robust defender of what he holds to be inalienable human rights – like the right to life from conception to natural death – and the moral teaching of his Catholic Church, said last year that he expected to die in his bed. He thought, however, that his successor would probably die in prison while the man who would succeed his successor would die the death of a martyr.

Within western civilization there are now two separate civilizations developing and the fault line between them is deepening with each year that passes. On the one hand are the adherents of the central Christian beliefs and moral laws. On the other are the nominal Christians for whom these beliefs and laws are a relative thing, susceptible to change and for whom the will of the majority is the guiding principle of life. These latter are allied with many who hold no religious belief and for whom all truth is essentially relative. These have bought into the version of modernity which exalts individualism over the common good, where marriage is redefined to eliminate the principle of indissolubility and its basis in the complementarity of the sexes is ignored, where sex itself is as much about recreation as it is about procreation and where the notion of equality is no longer linked to liberty or fraternity.

Huntington maintained that cultural conflicts were inevitable when adherents of the major religions – Christianity and Islam – found themselves confronted by a society dominated by the irreligious. Conflict became inevitable when the agents of government in that society begin to control and organise it in ways which change the very meaning of life itself and a people’s understanding of what the pursuit of happiness is all about.

His focus on all this was more in the context of conflicts between already constituted geographical blocks and much less about struggles between segments of populations within existing societies. It is in these theatres that this new cold war has now begun to break out.

Within Western societies – which are still largely but at best nominally Christian – there are now two emerging blocks. There are those who are essentially nominal in their allegiance to the ideals of Christian belief and practice and there are those who are actually committed to the effort, albeit sometimes failing,  of living their lives according to the principles enshrined in those beliefs and practices. This latter fits Huntington’s categorization of the type of civilization which is likely to provoke hostility and conflict. Its adherents are missionary, universal and teleological, that is: they seek conversions (mission), they see themselves in possession of the whole (universal) truth and that truth is where the end (telos) and destiny of mankind is revealed.

When, as is the case now in Western societies, laws begin to be put in place by one group – in this case the now dominant nominally Christian group under the influence of an irreligious version of modernity – which contradict and deny fundamental principles by which the other groups seeks to live, trouble is in store. What we call the “culture war” is in fact a clash of these two civilizations on a series of issues ranging through principles of religious freedom, freedom of conscience, principles governing the beginning and end of life, the nature of family, marriage as a social institution and the nature and purpose of human sexuality. For one group these are matters governed by expediency and a lassiez faire approach; for the other group they are non-negotiable issues founded in an immutable human nature and – for a believer in a divine creator – revealed in the teachings of their religion.

The conscientious Christian cannot, for example, accept as a basis for political legislation the principle enunciated by many politicians in all these societies, that while they see a particular human act as morally wrong they must still legislate to facilitate others to carry out such acts if they so choose. The following segment of a correspondence between a constituent and an elected representative in one Western democratic jurisdiction – Ireland – on the issue of abortion legislation illustrates the impasse between these two civilizations.

In the context of the lassiez faire  political approach to human abuse “the citizen” put the case to “the citizen’s representative” as follows:

In the case of deliberate abortion, the abuse is on the mother, on the child in the womb, and indirectly on the wider community. You didn’t say it, but I often hear other people say “It will happen anyway, so let’s legislate to allow it under certain circumstances.” Again, I’ve never heard this said about any other kind of crime (tax fraud, bank robberies, dangerous driving, drug dealing).

 There is enormous pressure worldwide to allow abortion, backed by a mighty industry and driven by so many people’s desire to have complete control of their lives, complete freedom in choice of lifestyle, escape from all suffering, escape from all constraints. These desires, often fostered by commercial interests, are based on illusions and ultimately lead to despair.

 The proposed change in (Irish) law seems very restricted, but in fact it would be taking a giant leap. It would be allowing people to decide which life is worth (preserving), and which life can be deliberately terminated. This is clearly pulling up an ethical and moral anchor, with drastic consequences.

 One day societies will look back in horror at the idea that they once used to kill their young, in much the same way as we now look back in horror at slavery. We can have the chance to take the enlightened approach, of resisting the pressure to conform in something which is inherently repulsive, no matter how it is dressed up.

 To this “the citizen’s representative” replied:

For an elected representative, one’s own feelings on a matter must not generally supersede what might be considered to be appropriate for the population as a whole. Where they are in common with each other, it is of course easier, but where there is a conflict the elected member must decide where the general interest lies – to attempt as best he/she can find the objective view.

 While I might not like the idea or practice of abortion, is it for me to impose these beliefs on the population as a whole? What is the balance between the State’s responsibilities and the individual’s rights? This is the debate that plays out.

 Therein lies the very fragile fault line between two civilizations, the one pragmatic in the extreme, responsive not to any principle but to the will of a majority – regardless of what that majority should wish. For those on the other side, rooted in firm and time-tested ethical principles, this is the philosophy which allowed and determined such human atrocities as slavery and the holocausts of the twentieth century. For them this is much more than a “debate that plays out”, it is a matter of life death and the destiny of mankind. It is something that in the last analysis they will be prepared to give their lives for – in one way or another. It is not a comfortable thought but Huntington’s explorations of the issue of the clash of civilizations twenty years ago cannot be seen as anything other than prescient.

Life, death or deadlock?

What has gone wrong? There can be no doubt but that something has gone very badly wrong when the very basis of mankind’s self-understanding has come to a pass where the vision of life and good living itself has been perverted beyond recognition. How did we get to the point where the termination of life, both by oneself and by another is considered a moral option? How did we reach a point where in the chaos and confusion emanating from the meltdown of our financial system, everyone talks about regulation and regulation agencies but no one talks about a moral sense of right or wrong or of the springs from which such a sense emanates. How did we come to lose our sense of the meaning of human love to the extent that it is now the pretext for the wholesale abuse of human sexuality?

Some years ago – not too many – in the aftermath of the emergence of Islamic rage against the West, the historian Bernard Lewis asked the same question about the collapse of Islamic civilization. He did so in a book which was simply titled, What Went Wrong?

I attended Mass one morning recently in a Dublin parish church. The parish priest concelebrated while a priest whom I had not seen before was the main celebrant and he preached a short homily. That homily gave me at least part of an answer to the question, what has gone wrong for us?

Bernard Lewis, 85 years of age, is professor emeritus at Princeton University and for many is thedoyen of Middle East studies in the West. How, his question asks, did the preeminence that the Islamic world once enjoyed and the civilization it had created collapse?

Lewis’s argument is that the success of Muhammad in establishing not merely the Muslim religion, but also an empire dominated by that faith, served to create a society that is totalitarian by its very nature, bound by rules and strictures that make it too static to adapt and compete with a West where Christianity, in contrast, does not demand control over the political and economic spheres.  The very foundations of these respective faiths for him hold the key to the histories of both civilizations – to date.

Could it be that the true crisis of the West today is that it may now be about to abandon the very reason for its triumph – its Judaeo-Christian heart, in favour of an amalgam of so-called “politically correct” principles founded on…nothing.

 Lewis argues as follows: The absence of a native secularism in Islam, and the widespread Muslim rejection of an imported secularism inspired by Christian example, may be attributed to certain profound differences of belief and experience in the two cultures.  The first, and in many ways the most profound difference, from which all others follow, can be seen in the contrasting  foundation myths–and I use this expression without intending any disrespect–of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. 

The children of Israel fled from bondage, and wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before they were permitted to enter the Promised Land.  Their leader Moses had only a glimpse, and was not himself permitted to enter.  Jesus was humiliated and crucified, and his followers suffered persecution and martyrdom for centuries, before they were finally able to win over  the ruler, and to adapt the state, its language, and its institutions to their purpose. 

Muhammad achieved victory and triumph in his own lifetime.  He conquered his promised land, and created his own state, of which he himself was supreme sovereign. As such, he promulgated laws, dispensed justice, levied taxes, raised armies, made war, and made peace.  In a word, he     ruled, and the story of his decisions and actions as ruler is sanctified in Muslim scripture and amplified in Muslim tradition.

On the contrary, Lewis goes on to explain, Judaism and Christianity had the concept of the secular state forced upon them by circumstance from their very beginnings. Where Christian theologians like St. Augustine developed complex theories to explain and justify the secular state, Muslim thinkers never even had to face the dilemma. 

Judaism and Christianity, in that view developed spiritually and lived spiritually in alien worlds before they came to terms with those worlds. They knew what true freedom was. They knew the place of law and regulation but also knew what their foundation was. On the other hand, lacking any sense of the secular and the eternal play between the City of God and the City of the World within which lives our sense and enjoyment of human freedom on a day-to-day basis, the Islamic world became crippled and dangerously resentful of its triumphant rival.

But if that rival now abandons the principles of the faith – and in particular if the ministers of that faith begin to abandon the authentic teachings which, in its Scriptures and traditions, have sustained it for millennia –  and which have given it its very essence, then the future is very uncertain indeed.

And this is where my epiphany in a Dublin parish church comes in again. After that Mass I went to talk of my concerns to the homilist – but the bird had flown. What had he said that was so worrying? It was more what he did not say that was the problem.

His homily referred to a film in the context of the gospel of the day (Matthew 9. 1-8). The film recounted the story of a young man who announced to his family and friends that he was gay. His mother was distraught and left the event at which this announcement took place, apparently rejecting her son in the process. The preacher made no further comment on this other than simply to pose the question to himself and his congregation: “How do I react when people tell me things I don’t particularly want to hear”.

It was no earth-shattering heterodoxy. But that phenomenon of late 20th century heterodoxy of which it is a symptom might ultimately put in the shadows the breach in Christendom effected by the 95 theses nailed on the door of a church in Wittenberg in 1517. The moral implication was clear to all. There was no moral issue whatsoever about the choice and actions of the gay son. The moral deviance was on the mother’s side, in failing to deal adequately with nothing more serious than something that she did not want to hear – like a choice of political party she might have disapproved of, a choice of a wife deemed unsuitable, or ever a rejection of her very good dinner. There was no recognition that what the mother might have been dealing with was the realisation that her son had made a choice which she knew to be immoral according to the norms of natural law, the teaching of the authentic Judaeo-Christian faiths and the law of God.

If our secular world continues on its rudderless way, guided only by groundless and flawed politically correct principles, and if the ministers of the Judaeo-Christian religions abandon their duty to hold up before their faithful followers the authentic shared principles of those religions, then the freedom we have enjoyed coming from the very heart of those religions will perish and we will end up with totalitarian systems fighting it out among themselves – to the death or deadlock.

A surfeit of moderation?

I’m not an islamophobe – at least I hope I’m not – but boy do some things about Islam really scare me. I want to understand these people, there are many things about them and their commitment that I admire, but they really do confuse me.

I live in Ireland and I cannot see any evidence of islamophobia here – they have their mosques, our President recently visited their splendid Islamic centre in Dublin and spoke very warmly and encouragingly to them. Significantly however, I thought, she encouraged them to try to help us to understand them more. We certainly need that help – and it is not always forthcoming.

Not many weeks before that address from the President I nearly choked on my Wheetabix one morning when I read a quote from a moderate spokesperson for the Islamic community here. He was talking about the experience of living in this country and how in general things were good for them. However at times, he said, things can get a little tense – like in the aftermath of the “incidents” in September, 2001 in New York and Washington, and the later ones in Madrid, London and Bali. “Incidents”? I looked again. Yes, that was the word he used. What, I asked, is going on in a mind like that? I can think of a thousand words which I would find to describe any one of those horrific atrocities before I would choose the word he chose. I wondered why – and I am still wondering. Does he really think these were mere incidents in the lives of ordinary people or is he using this word because he is looking over his shoulder to see who among his own people might be listening and weighing up what he is saying, finding it wanting in commitment?

To me there is still a huge question mark over the relative silence among what is described as the moderate Islamic world about the numerous “incidents” perpetrated in the name of the Islamic faith. There are those who deny that this has anything to do with faith but that is naive in the extreme. It may be a perversion of faith but if a 12-year-old boy is put on video slicing off the head of his enemy in a ritual execution, calling out at the same time, “God is great”, religion is at the heart of it. The Daily Telegraph reported: “The film, overlain with jihadi songs, then shows him hacking at the man’s neck, before exclaiming: ‘God is great!’ and hoisting the severed head by the hair.”

Where is the outcry? Why are there not statements of outright rejection coming from around the Islamic world? Why are there not mass demonstrations proclaiming “Not in my name and certainly not in God’s name do you do this”?

Nearer home this week we heard Scotland Yard’s Peter Clark, head of its counter-terrorism command, appealing again for help from within the Islamic communities in Britain to protect the British people against more terrorist attacks. Is the root of this reticence a tacit support for the terrorist or is it the effect of terror itself within these communities?

All this reminds me of an encounter with a student from Eastern Europe 30-odd years ago. He was doing post-graduate work here in Dublin. He was open and friendly in all things until it came to anything which touched on the politics or way of life in his own communist controlled country. He was not a communist but clearly he was afraid to say anything which might be negatively interpreted back home – and he wasn’t taking any risks that anything he might say should reach back home. It wasn’t that his life was necessarily at risk, but he certainly felt that his state-funded studies and his promising career back home were at risk.Militant Islam is an even more ruthless and lethal controlling agent than Communism ever was. That it draws on the great and inherently good power of religious conviction makes it even more lethal.

We must pity the unfortunate moderate Islamist who wants to practice a benign version of his faith. We might hope that one day the inherently false religion which is manifested in the malign version of the militants’ Islam will implode as Communism did. Do we hope in vain? Our hope would be stronger if we could see some of the courage among moderate Islamists that we did among the dissidents who helped contribute to the fall of Communism.

The Times and the BBC both report (Monday 26 Febru…

The Times and the BBC both report (Monday 26 February) that the British Council is cutting its budget for work on the European mainland to allow it to put more into its work in the Arab and Muslim world. Surely this is a good idea? There cannot be much more that Europe needs to know about British culture than it knows already – at least not much more that an organisation like the BC can help with. With the language as dominant as it is and with the BBC so far ahead of any other broadcasting organisation in terms of quality and penetration, all the BC can be doing in Europe is preaching to the converted.

The Muslim world is really the critical frontier. But as the experience of living with Muslims in Britain seems to show, it will not be easy. It is fashionalble to laugh off the idea of a clash of civilizations. Don’t be fooled. There really is a clash – and the BC’s initiatives are likely to exacerbate it in the short term. In the longer term, hopefully, it will be resolved.

The problem of course is not the mainstream of Islam. The problem is the radical fringe which will see any effort to introduce the faithful to Anglo-Saxon-Western values and way of life as a corrupting exercise – and they are right. Radical Islam cannot go to bed with Western values and survive. This is a fight to the death for the radical Muslim. This is what is going on in Afghanistan and in many other places. The outcome is pretty certain but there will be casualties and the resolution will take a long time. More power to the British Council.

In the same issue of the London Times I see that AA Gill is declaring that “gayness is not a sin. It’s not even a faux pas”. Is this more of the deliberate muddling of Christian morality which we get so much of from the “liberal” wing. I do not know any serious moral teaching that says “gayness” is a sin – no more than being hot-tempered is. Sin has to do with willful acts, acted out or otherwise. It comes only with surrender to tendencies which are contrary to an ordered human nature.

The Catholic Church shocks some people when it describes gayness as a disorder. We find lots of disordered tendencies in our nature – greediness, laziness, anger – but we do not get offended when it is suggested to us that we deal with these appropriately. Gays who deal with their gayness will be on the right track when they do the same – just as I will be when I deal with my laziness by getting out of bed in the morning when I don’t feel like it.

Christopher Howse in the Daily Telegraph a few weeks ago put his finger on the problem of course, writing in the context of the pickle which the Anglican Church has got itself into on this matter. The moral confusion, he suggested, all stems from the rejection of the moral principle that sexual acts are sinful if they are radically dissociated from the act of procreation. In other words, if deliberate contraception is not sinful, then no consensual or individual sexual act is sinful. Is it fair to say that the great moral divide of our time is the gap between those who believe this and those who don’t?

Finally, on a more uplifting note: what a special weekend we had here in Dublin.
The papers are full of historic musings about how our two islands, our two nations which share such an overwhelmingly common culture as to be really only remotely two nations, came together paradoxically in a great act of reconciliation on the battlefield of rugby. Needless to say our equivalent of the Taleban, continuity, real – or whatever they want to call themselves – IRA were hanging around the fringes of our celebrations. Mercifully, their day is gone at last and never did “tiochaid ar lá” sound more foolish.

We all wanted to put the past behind us – and we did. Whether or not we thought the 1916 rebellion was a wrong turning in our history, diverting us from the legitimate path to self-determination which we had hopefully entered on a few years earlier, we put those thoughts aside. Perhaps the long and painful saga of our invention of a false and forced national identity as “anything but British” might finally be petering out and we will be able to get on with genuinely being ourselves, accepting all those elements, Irish and British – to name but two – which make us what we are.