History never quite repeats itself, but — like a bad remake of a great movie — the news sometimes feels very old. That sense of déjà vu is hard to escape in Europe and the Middle East, because these are regions with long recorded histories, where almost anything that happens has some kind of precedent. It is easy to dismiss the significance of events with a weary shrug of the shoulders: “We’ve been here before.”
Easy, but wrong. So, for example, it would be easy to underestimate the importance of the Israeli airstrike against Syria on September 6. But what little evidence that has emerged so far suggests that this was in fact a hugely significant action by Israel. The operation not only nipped in the bud a nuclear threat to regional security, but also challenged America and other western countries not to shy away from the measures that would be necessary to stop Iran’s nuclear program in its tracks. For a second time — the first was its destruction of Iraq‘s nuclear facilities in 1981 — Israel has done a huge favour, not only for the West but for the world. The silence of Israel’s most vociferous critics denotes tacit consent.
It is even easier to ignore Turkey‘s threat to invade the Kurdish provinces of Iraq. When Saddam ruled Iraq, there were many reprisals by the Turkish military against Kurdish cross-border raids and terrorist attacks. So what is new about the present crisis? The answer is that Iraq is now a democracy, and Turkey is now ruled by an Islamist government. Democracies don’t go to war with each other.
When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited London this week, his British counterpart Gordon Brown tried to reassure him that Turkey was still on track to join the European Union. But Mr. Erdogan knows that this is eyewash. Islamist Turks are not prepared to make concessions on any of the ethnic problems bequeathed from the Ottoman era. Their hysterical reaction to a purely symbolic resolution on the Armenian genocide which Congress hasn’t even passed yet is proof that, nearly a century later, the massacre of 1.5 million Christians by their Muslim compatriots is still unmentionable.
The new Islamists, indeed, are even more intolerant than the old Ottomans, whose observance of sharia law was lax and whose oppression of their numerous Christian and Jewish subjects was mitigated by incompetence. Turkey is now almost 100% Muslim and increasingly influenced by more militant, anti-Western forms of Islam. Turks may want access to the European economy but they do not want to be integrated into European culture. Threatening the fledgling Iraqi democracy with invasion is reminiscent of Hitler’s bullying of Czechoslovakia — and the response from the West has been the same: appeasement. Sometimes, what appears to be “historic” reveals itself to be nothing of the kind. Such a case is the recent letter from 138 Islamic scholars to the Pope and other Christian leaders. This was presented in the media as an appeal for peace and mutual respect, emphasizing what the “peoples of the book” have in common. This is the line also being promoted in a major advertising campaign in London, the slogan of which is: “Islam is peace.” The only trouble with this campaign is that it is funded by Islamists who support terrorism against Israel and America.
In the case of the letter, what appears to be a peace offering turns out, under scrutiny, to be an implied threat. The letter demands that Christians accept the identity of the teaching of the Koran and the Bible on the oneness of God and the love of neighbour. Leaving aside the profound problem of the Trinitarian conception of the Christian God, there is a theological gulf between Muslim and Christian doctrines on the relationship of faith and reason — as Pope Benedict made clear in his Regensburg lecture last year. But the ulema — the Islamic religious authorities — have always been the main barrier to any attempt to reconcile rationality with the literal interpretation of the Koran.
It was they who crushed Islam’s contribution to science and philosophy nearly a millennium ago. It is they who justify the present jihad against the West and the persecutions of tens of millions of Christians and others across the Muslim world.
Now these same scholars make no mention of the many passages in the Koran that denounce Jews and Christians — or, indeed, the entire doctrine of jihad. Their olive branch comes with the proviso that Christians, not Muslims, are the aggressors: “As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them — so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes.”
For Christians to accept this document as the basis for negotiation would be tantamount to accepting the monstrous lie that Muslims are everywhere under attack from the West.
Fortunately Benedict XVI is too good a theologian to be bamboozled by such rhetoric. He has consistently said that relations with Islam must be based on reciprocity. Without an honest acknowledgement that Islam is not suffering persecution, that on the contrary its adherents are everywhere persecuting other faiths with the full support of their religious leaders, there can be no serious dialogue.
So the ulema’s offer of reconciliation proves to be an ultimatum — the same one that Mohammed himself uttered in 632: “I was ordered to fight all men until they say: ‘There is no god but Allah.’” The clerics who claim leadership over Islam behave as if their faith had stood still since the 7th century. Those who defy history are doomed to become history.