By David Alton
Ten years ago, with the collapse of the Eastern European Marxist States, Francis Fukyama was rash enough to suggest that we had come to “the end of history”. The proposition ran than with the old ideological battles between capitalism and communism finally resolved, whatever followed would be the last jerks of the rattlesnake. This would be the era of stable liberal democracies and market economies. September 11, and the war against terror, has changed all of that.
The new historical struggle is constantly presented as a fight to the finish against terror but however uncomfortable it makes us, we all know that it is also a struggle between two world views, and part of that is religious.
In one corner are Islamic forces like the Taliban, Al Q’aeda and the violent forces at work in Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia and Pakistan, where Christians have been ruthlessly targeted.
In the other corner are western governments, led by the United States, frightened by the spectre of biological, chemical and even nuclear attacks on their civilian populations. In some circles on the American right, these events are to be seen in apocalyptic terms, as the “end times” foretold in the Book of Revelation.
Neither “side” is coherent or united. There are as many Muslims who despise terror as there are Christians opposed to the aerial bombardment of cities in Iraq.
A sub-text in the present struggle is the position of the State of Israel.
The first group contains people who see Israel as an outpost of American imperialism, as an interloper that attacks Palestinian Muslims and denies them a home. The second group contains people who see Israel as God’s Promised Land and whose defence is a biblical injunction. What emerges from the crossfire is sometimes described as “the theology of hate”.
This dialogue of the deaf is accentuated by the additional incomprehension that exists between countries cast in the role of allies.
In America, European queasiness in facing up to the world’s evil, is treated with contempt. In Europe, America’s motives are almost always ascribed to empire-building or to self-interest. The argument goes that they are only doing it for the oil – although the facts don’t bear this out. For Americans their country represents the city on the hill, while Europe represents the city on the plain- a place of pure unadulterated pragmatism. Many Americans identify American democracy with civilisational superiority, while Europeans regard it with sneering contempt.
For some people in the United States, Islam has been turned into a substitute for world communism. Some deflected racism enters into the views that are then expressed. It is no longer politically acceptable in the United States to be openly racist (not least because so many black people serve in the Armed Forces) but if you listen to phone-in programmes you can soon discover against whom old prejudices are now being directed.
For Muslims the continued existence of the State of Israel is at the head of a litany of American crimes, but a whole host of issues animate the agenda as well. The re-election of the catastrophic Prime Minister, Sharon, is unlikely to make resolution of any of these questions easier.
As the conflict deepens, Europe and the United States talk past each other, and increasingly they don’t talk at all. As for talking to the Islamic world, we seem totally incapable of engagement.
A world that thought it had ended one deep historical battle between competing ideologies has now discovered a new one. A re-reading of what the emergence of Christianity did to the Roman Empire should be enough to remind the secular world never to discount the power of religion – for good and ill. Anyone who now tries to comprehend today’s political drama without an understanding of the religious questions involved will be ill-equipped to resolve the unfolding conflict.