Monday, February 06, 2006

Three Paths for Islam

If there’s one thing that Muslims and non-Muslims can agree about, it’s that something has got to give.

Here in the West we’ve been acting as if we’re the ones who are already beaten. The Left, which lost all interest in Rome decades ago, is accustomed to sympathizing with any barbarian horde that shows up at the gates. The Right is equally accustomed to wallowing in defeatist visions of apocalypse, in which a world bereft of courage and integrity caves in like a rotten pumpkin, and we can’t wait to say I-told-you-so. The Middle seems to think we can hide from all of this, walling ourselves off in our corner of the globe and nicely ignoring history until it goes away.

Everybody seems to think that the situation is too much to handle, and we shudder to think what it would take to handle it – not only war between governments, but total war between entire cultures. Not just destruction, but nuclear destruction. Yet capitulation is even more unthinkable, even to people who pretend to favor it.

The Muslim militant seems enviable in comparison, with his noble savage simplicity. He has little to lose, and an entire world to win. He burns like a pure fire while we smolder with self-doubt, bad faith, and fear. He has the “passion” and the “authenticity” that we’ve taught ourselves to covet.

All the same, he is hopelessly overmatched. Historian Paul Johnson remarked recently that Islam’s crusader spirit will die before the end of this century, and probably sooner than later. If this sounds too optimistic, I recall Johnson’s prediction in the early 1980s that the Soviet Union would soon die of demographic convulsions. Reading Modern Times as a boy, that prediction astounded me. I’d never heard anyone say such a thing before. My formative understanding of the world was built around the Manichaean confrontation of East and West; supposedly an indefinite stalemate, fossilized by the nuclear Balance of Terror.

And yet it happened, and Muslims played an important part in the death of that political galaxy. Not just the Muslims of Afghanistan, but the great mass of unassimilated “Soviet” Muslims whose Islamic culture was living and vibrant. The soulless, artificial corpse-culture of Marxism was no match for it. It was only a matter of time and mathematics.

But Western Civilization, for all its materialism and spiritual malaise, is no Soviet Empire. It is, in fact, exactly what the Soviet Union falsely claimed to be: an awesome product of natural history, against which Socialism is as fake as a cardboard tree. Its crises have always led to ever greater strengths, in defiance of all Marxist so-called logic. Political, cultural, and economic liberty are truly the Jinns that can’t be put back in a bottle. No ideology can control the West, let alone conquer it. It co-opts ideologies as easily as the Romans collected pagan gods. And its visible strength is only the merest tip of the iceberg. It suffers endless ridicule, defiance, and betrayal – but it always survives, because its spirit is the spirit of Life itself, and its inertia is too great for any revolutionary enthusiasm to overcome.

So the question is not how the West will survive the challenge of Islam, but how Islam will survive it. This collision has come before; it happened in the 16th century when modern Christianity confronted the modern world; a world which was no longer entirely Roman or entirely Christian. Christian thinkers looked on the warring kingdoms and decadent petty states of Europe with much of the same disdain that modern imams do: a morass of money-grubbing, quarrelling, moral indecency, and Godlessness.

In the accommodation of Christianity to modernism, the way was necessarily led by the Protestant reformers. In the 16th Century the Catholic Church was politicized and secularized, entombed in the status quo. The glory of Augustine and Aquinas had faded away (like the golden age of Islam has) and the Catholic humanists who would lead Catholicism into the future were only beginning to emerge. So it was up to the leaders of the Reformation to reconcile the old God with the new Caesars. Three major solutions to this problem were explored, one of which was successful. These three paths now point the way to the possible futures of Islam.

THEOCRACY. The ideal scenario for the zealots, of course, was the political subjugation of Papist, Jew, and heathen king. This was the path explored by Calvin and Zwingli. Zwingli’s protestant theocracy in Switzerland was short-lived; it led him into a hopeless war with Catholic powers, which killed him and his oppressive regime in the same blow. Calvin established a theocracy in Geneva which likewise did not last; nor did it last when it came again in Puritan England - and again in Puritan New England.

The old Catholicism had tried it all before, of course. But ruling kings had not turned kings into good Christians; instead, it turned Popes into second-rate politicians. By the time of the Reformation, Rome’s power was treated with contempt even by Catholic princes. Reached for comment, Christ said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

Calvin and Zwingli never had a chance. If the universal Pope of a unified Christian Church could not micro-manage civilization, how could a couple of upstart theologians do it? Yet their task was simple compared to the ambitions of the modern Lords of Jihad, who think they can swallow all of Democracy, Christianity, Capitalism, and Modernity, and digest it, too.

SEPARATISM. If you can’t beat them, stay away from them. This was the path taken by the so-called Anabaptists. They withdrew from the objectionable worldliness of the world into enclaves of their own, seeking to live a pure interpretation of Christian doctrine.

All Christians had grappled with the problem of reconciling Christ’s injunctions with life in the modern world. The Catholic Church had held that these injunctions were literal, but not universal – they did not apply to all Christians and only monks were expected to obey them in full. Lutherans, who had done away with monks and even with priests, held that the injunctions were spiritual guides that were binding on all Christians; not literal in their interpretation, but universal in their application. The Anabaptists went for both literalism and universalism, which put them completely at odds with society.

The Anabaptists earned a reputation for honesty, humility, and willingness to die for what they believed. They were often admired even by the people who persecuted and killed them. But there was a dark side to the Anabaptist force: humble in demeanor, some of them became excessively proud in spirit. Martyrdom convinced them of their own saintliness, and of the irredeemable evil of the rest of the world. Eventually their pacifism turned into militancy, their asceticism turned into the worst kind of crusader spirit, and their alienation turned into belligerent paranoia, as it so often does. They became obsessed with apocalyptic revenge fantasies in which a Christian elite would pour forth from a New Jerusalem, slaughtering the infidels.

In 1534, somebody tried it out. Anabaptists seized Munster, violently overthrowing the city fathers and expelling Catholics and Lutherans. They declared Munster to be the New Jerusalem, and prepared for the apocalypse in which 144,000 "saints" would conquer the world. In the meantime, they experimented with the most absurd literalism: in imitation of various Old Testament prophets, they went around naked or attempted to eat hot coals. The Anabaptists, once peaceful and meek, proved to be close relatives of the Christian theocrats who were their chief enemies.

The “New Jerusalem” lasted just long enough to permanently discredit Anabaptism, which dwindled thereafter to small minority sects. Their descendants are the Amish and other separatist communities, which have survived only by the tolerance of democratic societies. They no longer militate against the secular world, which is in fact their only reliable protector.

That is not the fate that modern Jihadists aspire to, not by a long shot. If it were, they would oppose all Islamic regimes and embrace democratic ones, as their only possible means of survival.

CO-EXISTENCE. This was the path chosen by Luther, in which church and state lead a separate life alongside one another. The Christian may participate fully in civic and economic life, while keeping his spiritual self separate from society’s unchristian aspects. He obeys the law, serves in the king’s army, pays taxes, and generally renders unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s – but nothing else.

If he can’t do this, he peacefully accepts martyrdom. Luther was horrified by the fate of the Anabaptists and disgusted by the crusades. He taught that Christians must never defend the faith by force. He went so far as to say that the state should not defend the church if it was attacked, as the church must trust to God alone. A Christian may kill to defend his country, but he may not kill to defend his faith.

This arrangement was, of course, the historically successful one. It is the path followed today by western Christianity, Catholic and Protestant alike, and by Judaism as well.

It didn’t all work out the way Luther would have liked. Ceding the public square to secularism led to a level of social permissiveness that outraged the old German. “Women go about bare these days, front and back, and I cannot stand to see my teachings put to such abuse.”

Plunging necklines aside, Luther should have been grateful that his worst fears were not realized. The church did not die in a pool of martyr’s blood, being now protected by its harmonious relationship with the state. One influenced the other, not always for the best, but neither would ever destroy the other. Out of this harmony, western democracy was born.

It is up to Islam now to follow one of these paths. The first two lead to extinction – in the West, at least - and the third leads to democracy.