Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Hope for the indifferent

Jonathan Last, writing in the Philidelphia Inquirer, believes that what is happening around us is indeed a 'clash of civilisations', one that, as Samuel Huntington said in 1993, has been going on for 1,300 years. He quotes Pope Benedict XVI who, in his book Without Roots, stated the very concept of Europe was forged under the hammer of Islam. He dismisses the view that the bombs and wild words have been provoked by Western foreign policies.

He concludes

Two lessons and three caveats here. Lesson one: When we face horrors such as the Beslan school massacre, the assassination of Theo van Gogh, the bombings in Bali, or the beheading of Daniel Pearl, we are seeing not a response to this policy or that action, but the latest episode in a long, historic struggle. Second: No matter how frightening, sometimes you must take your adversaries at their word.

First caveat: Appearances can deceive, and even the wise can be wrong. Second, even if this is a clash, it still could be short-circuited via unforseen events (such as the invention of a hydrogen fuel cell, or the rise of a great Muslim teacher who persuades millions to reject fundamentalism).

Finally, as Lewis writes:
"There is something in the religious culture of Islam which inspired, in even the humblest peasant or peddler, a dignity and a courtesy toward others never exceeded and rarely equaled in other civilizations."

If we accept that this is a clash between civilizations, two questions face us: How does this change our thinking? And the painful one: What do we do about it?
It is the second question I would like to think about. It's just that, whatever the true nature of the creed Islam, whatever the culture it was born of and created, whatever the social and political failure it represents now, and however commentators may expose the lurking dangers within, there remains a very practical problem. It can't be got rid of, or wished away. Worse, a billion plus people seem to cling to it for the simple reason that they have nothing else that bestows upon them the blessings of identity and belonging. And yet, I can't help believing that, given a choice, most of that billion plus people would much rather have something like what we have.

I don't mean the washing machines, the iPods and the Bacardi Breezers. I mean, one, the ability and confidence to make things that other people want, and two, to live in a system that leaves you alone. Most people want a quiet life. They do not want to be called to suffer for their faith or to climb spiritual mountains. They don't really believe that the New Jerusalem can be built anywhere nearby and would be satisfied to bring up their children and do a decent job.

Which brings me back to Point One. Unfortunately, Point two depends on Point one, and it is that which brings us back to Islam and also to what we have done. Because what we have done to provoke them is all too clear; we have achieved a cultural superiority that is so clear and so humiliating that the stain, for some at least, can be wiped away only with the most extreme violence. Yet, to rid the world of that stain would leave nothing but a desolation. The obvious conclusion, to change as the Chinese have changed, was half-heartedly attempted in the Dar al-Islam, but more enthusiastically embraced by emigrating and moving to the Dar al-harb.

The essential problem, however, the inability of Arab culture to re-take a position of eminence in the world, remained and remains. It is one that we can do little about; any solution has to come from within. Our greatest contribution would be to stop telling the great lie of Western culpability and to stand firm for what we have made and achieved. But for that billion plus, if they are to have any hope of living a quiet life and excaping the hectoring of their mad mullahs and rabid seekers of heaven, then they will have to do the job themselves and somehow bend their inflexible creed to the banalities of this workaday world. It's either that or Jihad for life.

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