I remember as a small boy going from door to door in our village collecting money for a missionary ship, the John Williams. It was taking God to the heathen of the East Indies, a distant realm to which the Good Lord, despite His all-seeing wisdom, had carelessly (and I thought excitingly) denied His presence. It never occurred to me that the natives might adhere to some other faith. I saw them waiting eagerly on the beach for the Bible to be carried ashore, wondering only why the Royal Mail was so slow.
Last week a 29-page letter to the Pope was issued from a galaxy of 138 Muslim leaders designed to refute any such exclusive creed. It pleaded for better understanding between Christians and Muslims, based on a shared monotheism and the affinity between the Bible and the Koran. Both contained commandments to love a single god and to love one’s neighbour. The archaic language boiled down to hoping that the two religions might respect each other because “the future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians”.
The letter is certainly an advance on the first missive to Nicephorus, a 9th-century prince of Rome, from Harun al-Rashid, a Muslim caliph.
Addressing “thou Roman dog”, Rashid wrote, “I have read thy letter, O thou son of an unbelieving mother. Thou shalt not hear, thou shalt behold, my reply.” He proceeded to massacre half Byzantium.
Rashid’s successors are more circumspect. They implicitly rebut George Bush’s “He who is not with us is against us” speech after 9/11. “Islam is not against the Christians,” the letter declares, “so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes.” Nor is this debate “simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue between leaders”. The “eternal souls” of those who “relish conflict and destruction” are at stake, not to mention “the survival of the world”.
Coming at the end of Ramadan, the letter is impressive. The signatories embrace a global range of grand muftis, imams, sheikhs and scholars from all denominations of Islam, with a wide span of theological influence. The appeal to religious tolerance at a time of tension between Islam and the West is welcome. But what the letter means needs deconstruction.
Religious leaders like to claim headlines by subjecting politics to a downpour of platitude. The letter makes no mention of (monotheistic) Jews, let alone Hindus and Buddhists. It merely invites the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and others to acknowledge what the archbishop calls “their common scriptural foundations . . . as a basis for justice and peace in the world”. Two religions that embrace “half of humanity” should stand together or, by implication, there will be war.
Such an implication is grandiose, dangerous and wrong. It implies that the Muslim world has a politico-military power that is in some sense equal and opposite to that of Christianity. This elevates the so-called jihadist tendency within Islam to a status that it does not have and should never think it has. It suggests Islam has sufficient power to confront and possibly undermine the West. It implies a balance of power parallel with a balance of theological interpretation.
Such an implication feeds a no less dangerous paranoia in the West. By stating that the “survival of the world” might turn on a struggle between Islam and Christianity, the letter reinforces the militarist fantasies of neoconservatives who see the world as just such a struggle. It is a paranoia which, since 9/11, has driven the “war on terror” and fomented the tension and antagonism to the West to which the scholars’ letter is so vacuous a response.
The chief threat to world security at present lies in the capacity of tiny groups of political Islamists to goad the West into a rolling military retaliation. Extremists on each side feed off the others’ frenzied scenarios so as to garner money and political support for their respective armies of the night. Each sees the other as a cosmic menace and abandons communal tolerance and peaceful diplomacy to counter it. The authors of this letter would be better employed vetting their own blood-curdling mullahs and madrasahs than in writing platitudes to the Pope.
I am proud to be a cheerleader for western values. I see the West – proxy for the letter’s “Christians” – as powerful without precedent. The American-European economic and political axis is unconquerable. For all its occasional and manifold lapses, capitalist democracy has been tested and not found wanting. Other societies such as Russia, China and India all measure themselves against the West’s success and seek in varying degrees to emulate it. To this extent Francis Fukuyama was right to call the end of the cold war “the end of history”.
The Muslim world is more detached. Its religious habits scare nervous westerners into seeing it as a shrouded, black-clad menace. It is a less ordered society and more capable of perpetrating, or at least excusing, outrages against western targets. But these outrages are of frustration rather than conquest. While they can kill people and destroy property, they do not “threaten the West”, let alone undermine western values. If any Muslim state were rash enough to declare a war of aggression against Europe or America, of which there is no sign, it would be beaten.
There is no Saladin or Tamerlane riding out of the desert to subject the West to a new caliphate. There is rather a job for the police, local and international, one at which they seem reasonably competent. America and Britain, for example, have each seen just one successful attack by Muslim terrorists in the past decade. While other attacks have been forestalled, we would be mad to see them as constituting a war of civilisations and religions.
There may be young Muslims and their teachers with a vested interest in talking up such a war. There are those in the West with the same interest, such as the booming armaments and security industries with their think tanks and lobbyists.
Such vested interests need to be exposed as such. To portray Islam as a whole as a concerted threat to western security, and to imply that the West’s democratic institutions and freedoms are not proof against that threat, is absurd and close to treason. Then to demand that western freedoms be dismantled and stored away for the duration of a “war on terror” is to wave the flag of surrender.
This defeatism led the American Congress to allow its president to authorise torture and detention without trial in what Senator Robert Byrd called “the slow unravelling of the people’s liberties”. It enabled a British Home Office to curb free speech and habeas corpus. It arms police, fortifies buildings and impedes the free movement of citizens. It makes every Christian suspicious of every Muslim.
This poison has not been generated by the teaching of Sayyid Qutb and his Al-Qaeda fanatics, but in the overreaction to them. After sowing their mayhem they, and not Afghanistan and Iraq, should have been targeted and eliminated. The belligerence and ineptitude of western policy over the past decade has turned nobodies into heroes of the Muslim world. The most incompetent period of western diplomacy since the 1930s has left the West hated and cities everywhere at the mercy of any Muslim misfit with a sack of explosive.
When Thomas Paine told America that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again”, he meant by example, not military conquest. His utopianism was a brave, confident and open-hearted one. That of his successors is sinking into the opposite, a fearful, besieged, security-obsessed wimpishness, in which Muslims rightly feel threatened by the arbitrary violence of the American right.
It is ironic that defeat in the cold war should have led Russia to the exuberant self-confidence of Vladimir Putin’s Moscow, while victory has plunged the West into a loss of nerve. In both Washington and London are leaders who have so little confidence in democracy as to regard it as vulnerable to a few madmen, and who have so little respect for democracy’s freedoms as to suspend them at the bang of a bomb.
I believe in the robustness of the democracies created in the West over the past half-century. I am not sure that our leaders do.