Thursday, August 14, 2014, National Post contributor Father Raymond J. de Souza penned a typically thoughtful and, given the times, an understandably ‘Cassandran’ article entitled The Battle of Our Century. It begins, most astutely, by reminding the reader that neither ‘History’ nor ‘Politics’ is reducible to calendars or futurology and that January 1, 2000, no more ushered in the 21st century than Y2K did the End of Days. It began, rather, ‘with the carnage of September 11’, 2001. The ‘battle’ in question, therefore, inexorably and quite rightly, casts Islam as the great antagonist.
But precisely who or what might the protagonist be for de Souza? America? A more nebulous ‘West’? A phantasmagorical ‘international community’ – Israel, perhaps? None of the above. In a seemingly concerted bid to debunk the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis, the author contends, somewhat incongruously (not least because 9/11 was the first act of war perpetrated on American soil since Pearl Harbour) that, although the century is still ‘ours,’ the battle is not.
It is not a war between religions, and not a war between Islam and Christianity. [Or Judaism, by inference]. It is a theological war in Islam that has lethal consequences for all those it touches, including non-Muslims.
Far from being the resultant of a direct hit on America, then, our century was actually baptized by Islam’s depraved misfire. 9/11, in other words, was the mother of all collateral damages. Just as, accordingly, the current flow of pogroms against Christians and other ethnic minorities throughout the Middle East – to say nothing of the protracted war of extermination being waged against the ‘Zionist entity’ – are but mere tactical appendages. ‘Lethal consequences’, as de Souza puts it; but ‘consequences’ none the less.
The real clash, rather, pits the Shia titan against his Sunni brother. The Islamic State of Iran – ‘a state power at the service of Islam in a theocracy’ – versus the sub-state terrorist networks of the Sunni netherworld, be it al-Qaeda, ISIS, etc. And, in the face of so intractable and apocalyptic a clash, there is but one responsible strategy for the West: namely, ‘to protect its populations from the spillover effects when the jihad cauldron overflows.’
Israel, de Souza elaborates, as the West’s most proximate Western nation, has learned this first, which is why it is reluctant to seek allies amid warring Islamic factions, and resigns itself instead to repeated small wars on its borders.
Albeit skewed slightly, de Souza’s recognition of Israel is in and of itself noble indeed. Historically, the Vatican’s track record on assessing the Muslim-Israeli conflict has been less than objective or generous toward the Jewish state (but more on this below). And, in comparative terms at least, Israel fairs far better in the author’s assessment than the rest of the West. For de Souza, in fact, all the tragicomic catastrophes as devised by the current American President (as well as his predecessor) are born of a fatal reluctance to come to terms with this founding fact: i.e., ‘that our century would be defined by a theological war within Islam’. Bush the Younger, to the contrary, and to his peril, ‘spoke of a “war on terror”, which is [merely] a technique, not an idea or movement’. And Obama, for his part, deemed it necessary to play (bathetically, as it turns out) the supplicant in Cairo in 2009 on behalf of his entire nation.
Then comes the whopper. As a foil to all the bumblers of the West, the good Father places – beside Israel it would seem – his former boss, Pope Benedict XVI. The erstwhile pontiff – ‘more clearly than either his predecessor or his successor it should be noted’ – called the world’s attention to the religious war raging within Islam; most famously at his Regensburg Address in Germany in 2006. Now, whatever the merits and the ultimate intention of Benedict’s speech that day with respect to the ‘clash of civilisations’ / ‘clash within Islam’ debate; the former pontiff’s positions on Israel were nowhere near as sound as de Souza’s. Indeed, they were downright dodgy. Which begs the question: why ever should we look to Joseph Ratzinger to get ‘the battle of our century’ right when he got Israel so wrong’!?
It all blew up but a year before his sermon in German in Regensburg, and it made for the kind of international row that all major mastheads are always keen to cover. In the wake of 7/7, 2005, Pope Benedict condemned terrorist attacks against civilians in Great Britain, Egypt, Iran and Turkey. Israel, however, the very front-line state that has suffered terrorist attacks of Islamic derivation on its soil since the mid-1990s, got no mention.
When the Israeli government understandably protested the omission, the Vatican closed ranks. It went on to say that it could not protest every Palestinian attack on Jewish civilians if Israel did not always follow international law. The implications of so opprobrious a position were justifiably excoriated by Alan Dershowitz:
Unless a country is absolutely flawless in its response to terrorism, the Vatican will not condemn terrorism against its civilians. This seems to justify the killing of civilians as a protest against violations of international law.
Dershowitz also noted how this very ‘pregnant silence’ on the Vatican’s part tacitly absolved infinitely greater offenders of international law than Israel. Egypt, then still under Hosni Mubarak, routinely tortured (in some cases to death) suspected terrorists, to say nothing of mere dissidents. Post-Mubarak realities are none the better. Turkey’s record, too, is notorious.
Doubtless Benedict XVI, in his capacity as emeritus papa, remains a busy and sought-after soul. But, in the event his retirement proves not challenging enough, a brilliant new career awaits him at the UN. Perhaps even the presidency of UNRWA.
De Souza’s own thesis, meanwhile, for all its strength and integrity, is far too rigid and abstract. It treats otherwise eminently mutable categories as woefully immutable. The rigidity with which he presents his Sunni-Shia schism is the most damning example. As Bernard Lewis has so deftly argued, said schism is not at all ‘theological’. It is exclusively political and, therefore, subject to all the vagaries and expediencies of the earthly city: relations of force, balance of power, vacuums of power, etc.
What’s more, in fixating as he does on this great divide, de Souza perforce downplays the plight of Christian and other ethnic minorities throughout Islamdom. These genuine victims are not simply caught in the cross-fire of the two Islamic titans; they are resolutely fixed in the cross-hairs of either barrel. Indeed, the Islamic animus for all manner of kuffari is often wont to bridge de Souza’s pristine theological chasm. Ayan Hirsi Ali’s words are most germane here:
Shia and Sunni Muslims may hate one another; Arab Muslims may degrade African Muslims as slaves; Turks and Persians, may look down on Arabs. But at the end of the day, when an imam calls for Tawhid, unity is the oneness of Allah, and performs the takbir, “Allahu Akbar”, nearly all Muslims unite.
Thence the Iran-Alawite-Hezbollah-Hamas-Turkey-Qatar axis of evil.
Jews, Christians, and other ethnic minorities in the House of Islam are not consequential, incidental, or collateral victims of the Sunni and Shia. They are high-value targets for either sect in the war they both inaugurated in their own time and in their own fashion. Muslim-on-Muslim carnage may numerically dwarf the subjection-decimation of all kuffari, but the political boon to be had from the latter is incalculable in terms of Islamic agitprop and strategy. Muslims know this instinctively. We ought to have learned it by now.
Conversely, by ‘consequentialising’ non-Muslim victims, de Souza idealizes the Muslim masses – ‘the first to live with the consequences of jihadism.’ They are depicted as purely, perfectly, passive victims; analogous, say, to European Jewry in the 1930s and 1940s. Every Pew Survey taken in the Muslim world since 9/11, however, suggests quite another reality. It suggests the kind of reality that is in every way consonant with the aftermath of Regensburg throughout the Middle East. In the West Bank, Gaza, and Basra churches were attacked. An Italian nun was murdered in Somalia, along with two Assyrian Christians in Iraq. The terror has only escalated thousands-fold since then. And what is true for Christians and Jews in the House of Islam is doubly true for all non-Muslim states. Sunni and Shia alike want a world caliphate. And they’ll stop neither at one another’s borders nor at Israel’s to get it.
The battle is ours. Whether the century is too will depend on how fully we subscribe to this fact and act accordingly.