The Challenge of Islam, the Anguish of the West

Article excerpt

In England recently, the words of Elgar's anthem "Land of Hope and Glory" were rewritten for a concert for students at the Royal Albert Hall. The head of the teachers' union complained that, at a time of war, the old words were frighteningly jingoistic. "In light of the conflict, where there could be casualties both civilian and British, such a triumphalist song is inappropriate," the man said. The lines "God who made thee [England] mighty, make thee mightier yet," were turned into: "Bring our world together, make us closer yet."

The substitutions reflect the outlook of the shapers and molders of Western societies, who no longer believe in God-not one who plays a role in the affairs of men, at least. When entering a conflict with those who do believe in God, therefore, they become a little nervous and refrain from invoking His name. Meanwhile, in Birmingham, England's second largest city, where one third of the population is now Muslim,jihad videos are on sale. They celebrate the destruction of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and refer to Jews and Americans as "monkeys and pigs." Prime Minister Tony Blair reassures us that Islam had "nothing to do with" the terror attacks, but Osama bin Laden and millions of Muslims think otherwise.

It seems that we really are in a religious war, but don't want to acknowledge the possibility. That's because we disapprove of religious wars and think everyone else should, too. It's as though we believe that Muslim zeal can be contained, but only if we suppress all traces of its Western, Christian counterpart. Not that much of it remains to suppress. Alan Wolfe, professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, a dependable voice of establishment sentiment on religious affairs, is relieved to find that "there is no single God for whom the ever more diverse U.S. society could enter a war." Americans, God bless them, "tend to practice their faith in distinctly modern ways," he adds. Not very fervently, in other words.

If there is one idea that the opinion shapers of the Western world, from NewYork to London and Paris wish to inculcate, it is that we are not facing a "clash of civilizations," to use Samuel Huntington's much fought-- over phrase. We are merely in a "war against terrorism." And that is more reassuring. Life can return to normal once we have succeeded in rousting bin Laden and his al network from their caves. But how many people believe that really is the war we are in?

Another unpopular thought is that what inflames the Muslim soul is not so much our material wealth as our spiritual poverty. Islam increases as Christianity flags. "It may well be that the rise of Islam is itself made possible by our own moral weakness and spiritual disorder," wrote Fr. James V Schall, Sj., who teaches at Georgetown University. By coincidence, one week before the attack on the World Trade Center, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster gave a speech to his priests, saying that Christianity in Britain "has now almost been vanquished." We live "in a totally new time for all Christians," he added, "and the anguish of the Western world is there for all to see." A year earlier the Archbishop of Canterbury had said much the same thing: "a tacit atheism prevails."

We might expect, then, that further attenuation of religious sentiment in the West will not placate the zealous Muslim, but only arouse him further. "What most inflames antiAmerican passion among fundamentalists may be the American government's lack of religious zeal," writes Lamin Sanneh, a professor of history and religion at Yale University. The separation of Church and State in effect privatizes belief, Sanneh adds, "making religion a matter of individual faith." This is an affront to fundamentalist Muslims, "who are confident that they possess the infallible truth. For them, this truth is not a private revelation but a public imperative, and states, like people, are either Muslim or infidel. …