October 25, 2001
Back in the
1930s, when white men were preparing for another round of mutual
slaughter, few of them paid any attention to the Muslim world. They assumed it to
be a backward region that history had long since passed by.
One man saw it differently. The great Catholic
polemicist Hilaire Belloc, an Englishman of French ancestry, remembered
Islams past and predicted, in his book The Great Heresies,
that it would one day challenge the West again. As late as 1683 its armies had
threatened to conquer Europe, penetrating all the way to Vienna; Belloc believed
that a great Islamic revival, even in the twentieth century, was altogether
Belloc saw Islam not as an alien religion, but
in its origins as a Christian heresy, adopting and adapting certain Christian
doctrines (monotheism, the immortality of the soul, final judgment) and rejecting
others (original sin, the Incarnation and divinity of Christ, the sacraments). Its
simple, rational creed had a powerful appeal to Arabs who had known only the
arbitrary gods of grim pagan religions. It swept the Arab world, then made
converts and conquests far beyond Arabia.
Islam was a militant
religion from the start. Mohammed himself conquered the entire Arabian Peninsula
in just a few years. The new faith was torn by violent internal divisions even as it
continued to spread. But spread it did, with incredible rapidity.
Christians had good reason to fear Islam,
which soon conquered Spain and held it for centuries. But because Islam has little
attraction for Christians, the West has generally failed to grasp its appeal for
others, its profound and permanent hold on the minds of believers. Unlike the
Christian West, the Muslim world has never had crises of faith like the
Reformation and the Enlightenment.
Islam is a simple religion, easily understood
by ordinary people. Its commandments are rigorous but few. When it conquered, its
subjugated people often felt more liberated than enslaved, because it often
replaced burdensome old bureaucratic governments with relatively undemanding
regimes and low taxes. As long as its authority was respected, Islamic
rule was comparatively libertarian. It offered millions relief from their
traditional oppression; for example, no Muslim could be a slave.
Belloc distinguishes sharply between Islam
and such barbarous conquerors as the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan. The Mongols
were purely destructive; they were known for slaughtering whole cities and
making huge pyramids of severed heads.
Such savagery was alien to the Muslims.
Where they conquered, daily life usually went on much as before and culture
thrived. In many respects the Muslim world was far more civilized than Christian
Europe for centuries. The West hated and dreaded Islam, but nobody would have
thought of calling it backward.
That contemptuous image came much later,
when modern Europes science, technology, and above all
weaponry had eclipsed those of the Arabs. We are apt to forget how recently this
development occurred; and, as Belloc warned, it is not irreversible.
Man, especially irreligious man, is apt to
equate power and progress. Many of those who say America is the greatest
country on earth really mean only that America has fantastic military
might, capable of annihilating any other country and some of them, at the
moment, are in the mood to do some annihilating. To the pious Muslim this attitude
seems crass and barbaric. He may conclude from it that the decadent West
understands only one thing: force.
And would he be far wrong? Belloc admitted
that the idea of a new Muslim challenge to the West seemed
fantastic, but only because the West was blinded by
the immediate past. Taking a longer view, he saw Islam, though
inferior in material power, as having a great advantage: its religious faith was
still strong, while the West was losing its religion and consequently its morale.
He thought it entirely possible that Islam would catch up technologically, while he
doubted that the West would undergo a spiritual revival.
Are we seeing the beginning of the fulfillment
of Bellocs prophecy? If so, the current uproar over Islamic terrorism may
turn out to be a mere superficial symptom of a much larger historical drama. The
West is still strong, but it is dying. Islam is still weak, but it is growing. Never
mind the terrorists; check the birthrates.