With the ouster of the Taliban and eradication of the al-Qaida in Afghanistan, Islamic extremism has sustained a crushing defeat. But what continues to unsettle Americans is that film of Arab and Islamic people, wildly cheering the barbaric atrocities of Sept. 11.
Is a war of civilizations coming?
Clearly, not a few in the Islamic world and the West so believe, and ardently desire. And, with the War Party cawing for an attack on Iraq, with Sharon unleashed after the atrocities in Jerusalem and Haifa, with the U.S. press calling for a reappraisal of our ties to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, a clash of civilizations has moved from the possible to the probable.
President Bush, however, seems instinctively aware such a war would be a disaster. For no matter how many deaths or defeats we inflict, we cannot kill Islam as we did Nazism, fascism, Japanese militarism and Soviet Bolshevism. Islam has survived for nearly 1,600 years; it is the predominant faith in 57 countries; it is indestructible.
Astonishingly, 63 years ago, when Islam lay dormant under the heel of Western empires, a famous Catholic writer predicted Islam would rise again. Wrote Hillaire Belloc: “It has always seemed to me … probable, that there would be a resurrection of Islam and that our sons or our grandsons would see the renewal of that tremendous struggle between the Christian culture and what has been for more than a thousand years its greatest opponent.”
Islam was a Christian heresy, Belloc believed, whose strength lay in its “insistence on personal immortality, the Unity and Infinite Majesty of God, on his Justice and Mercy [and] … its insistence on the equality of human souls in the sight of their Creator.”
While The Prophet “gave to our Lord the highest reverence, and the Mother of God was ever for him the first of womankind,” he rejected the Incarnation. Mohammed “taught that our Lord was the greatest of all Prophets, but still only a prophet, a man like other men.” Belloc believed Islam to be a “Reformation” movement with parallels to “the Protestant Reformers – on Images, the Mass and Celibacy.”
When Christians were illiterate, Islam spread “for 700 years, until it had mastered the Balkans and the Hungarian plain, and all but occupied Western Europe itself,” almost destroying Christendom “through its early material and intellectual superiority.”
Three heroes saved the West. In 732, at Poitiers, Charles Martel, the Hammer of the Franks, stopped Islam’s invasion in France. In 1571, the Christian fleets of Don Juan of Austria, an illegitimate son of Charles V, destroyed the Mohammedan armada in an epic battle immortalized in Chesterton’s “The Ballad of Lepanto.” And Polish Catholic King John Sobieski stopped the Turks at Vienna “on a date that ought to be famous in history, September 11, 1683.”
One of history’s great questions is why the Islamic world collapsed. A century before Yorktown, Constantinople was superior in arms. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Islamic world was not only superseded by the West, it fell backward – in technology, industry, communications, arms and governance. The Ottoman Empire became “the sick man of Europe.”
Colonization by the West followed. In the 20th century, only at Gallipoli – the 1915 battle that cost its architect, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, his post – can one recall an Islamic victory over a Western army.
But if a clash of civilizations is coming, how stands the balance of power? In wealth and might, the West is supreme – though wealth did not prevent the collapse of the Western empires and did not prevent the collapse of the Soviet empire. Rome was mighty, and early Christianity pathetically weak. Yet, Christianity triumphed.
If belief is decisive, Islam is militant, Christianity milquetoast. In population, Islam is exploding, the West dying. Islamic warriors are willing to suffer defeat and death, the West recoils at casualties. They are full of grievance; we, full of guilt. Where Islam prevails, it asserts a right to impose its dogma, while the West preaches equality. Islam is assertive, the West apologetic – about its crusaders, conquerors and empires.
Don’t count Islam out. It is the fastest growing faith in Europe and has surpassed Catholicism worldwide. And as Christianity expires in the West and the churches empty out, the mosques are going up.
To defeat a faith, you need a faith. What is ours? Individualism, democracy, pluralism, la dolce vita? Can they overcome a fighting faith, 16 centuries old, and rising again?