My first experience of Islam, exactly thirty years ago, was a spectacular one: the Dome of the Rock. This is the place on Temple Mount in Jerusalem whence Mohammed was, according to the Koran, taken up into heaven, and the golden shrine which was built there in 691–692 A.D. by Caliph Abd al-Malik is the earliest and most elegant example of Muslim architecture extant. Non-Muslims are not permitted to visit the Dome today, but since last year they have been readmitted to the Temple Mount, or Noble Sanctuary, as Muslims call it. In the last generation the whole situation in Jerusalem has changed. Muslim leaders and scholars now routinely deny that the Temple of Solomon ever existed in Jerusalem, and the Christian population of the Old City has fallen from more than half to less than 10 percent, the rest driven out by Muslim persecution. Back in 1977 non-Muslims were still allowed not only onto Temple Mount, but inside the Dome too. At the time I was studying the history of the Crusades, so I had some grasp of the significance of Jerusalem to medieval Muslims such as Saladin, who promised that after he had recaptured Jerusalem, he would “cross this sea to their [Christian] islands to pursue them until there remains no one on the face of the earth who does not acknowledge Allah—or I die [in the attempt].” What I did not understand was that for many, perhaps most Muslims, this view had not altered one jot in the eight intervening centuries. The reconquest of Jerusalem for Islam is seen as a necessary prelude to the destruction of the state of Israel and the conversion of Christendom.
The Dome is a simple enclosure, its non-figurative images of Paradise are authentically Islamic. They are accompanied by verses from the Koran with a warning against the Christian doctrines of the divinity of Christ and the Trinity: “The messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was only a messenger of Allah… . So believe in Allah and his messengers and do not say ‘three’: refrain, it is better for you.” The Byzantine historian Judith Herrin comments: “This monument symbolizes the decisive shift of power and religious observance in the Near East.” It is a shift that neither the Byzantines nor the Crusades could reverse, and the Islamization of Africa, Asia, and Europe continues to this day.
After they took Jerusalem, the Crusaders wrongly imagined that the Dome of the Rock was the Temple of Solomon, as the round Templar churches all over Europe testify. But the differences between the Dome and the real Temple symbolize the clash of civilizations. Beautiful as it is, the Dome stands as a trophy of victory. Its sacred relic—Mohammed’s rock—is almost incidental to its function as a monument to the triumph of Islam over Judaism and Christianity. Its inscriptions differ little in their propagandist purpose from the videos of Osama bin Laden. This is jihad, frozen in marble and mosaic. The magnificence of Solomon’s Temple served quite another purpose: for the people of Israel, this was the house where God himself dwelt. The functions of these two buildings are as far apart as war and peace.
From its very inception, Islam has defined itself by what it is against. It divides the world into two camps: those who submit to the will of Allah, the Muslims, and the rest, who are presumed to be damned—including the other “peoples of the book.” As one British imam told Muslims in his Birmingham mosque: “Those whom the wrath of Allah is upon, is [sic] the Jew and the Christian.” (Interestingly, the West Midlands police showed less interest in prosecuting the imam than in complaining to the TV regulator about the Channel Four program Dispatches, which had secretly filmed his sermon.) The only hope for the non-Muslims is conversion, an irrevocable decision that reflects the existential gulf between the inhabitants of the two metaphysical abodes, the earthly equivalents of heaven and hell: the House of Islam and the House of War. Muslims cannot leave the House of Islam for another faith with impunity: as a recent Dispatches program on Channel Four showed, even in Britain, such apostates live in fear of their lives. Islam is a faith that demands unconditional allegiance. Muslims must be ready to kill or be killed if necessary for their faith. Sharia, the law of Islam, takes precedence over all other laws. Likewise, jihad, the war of Islam, takes precedence over all other wars. When confronted by these stark, unchanging ordinances, the equivocations of supposedly liberal Islamic scholars such as Tariq Ramadan tell their own story. Nothing that mere men say can ameliorate or mitigate a code handed down unaltered from seventh-century Arabia.
These two characteristics of Islam—its immutability and the fact that it defines itself against the rest of humanity—help to explain its extraordinary appeal to angry young men and women. They find refuge in the moral certainties and self-justification that other religions, especially Christianity and Judaism, no longer seem to provide. Because Islam has no hierarchy, every Muslim may submit to an Islamic authority of his own choosing. That choice is likely to be driven as much by political considerations as purely religious ones. There is no conceptual separation between religion and politics in Islam. The few Muslim scholars who interpret the Koran according to the hermeneutic principles that govern modern biblical scholarship are shunned by the literalist majority, and enjoy little influence in the madrassas and universities of the Muslim world. But even in western countries the version of Islam that is taught is usually fundamentalist. The result is that in Britain, nearly half of the mosques are controlled by the extremist Deobandi movement from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India, while many more are under equally fundamentalist Wahhabi or Salafi influence from Saudi Arabia. While all Muslims certainly do not subscribe to all tenets of Islam, enough of them do to make it virtually impossible for the dissenters’ voices to be heard.
How should conservatives respond to Islam? I don’t know the answer, and I am not sure that the notion of a correct response to anything as complex as a religion is a very conservative idea. Until quite recently, most people in the West felt no particular need to have any response to Islam, and so any response they do have is bound to be quite personal.
I respond to Islam, therefore, not only as a political animal, but also as a product of a particular history and a particular civilization. I respond to Islam as a citizen of a liberal democracy in which religious toleration is a given, but in which church and state occupy distinct spheres and religious traditions or doctrines have no force of law; in which the freedom of speech includes the right to criticize a religion or even to insult its founder; and in which personal autonomy under the rule of law implies the non-culpability of heresy or apostasy. I respond as a neighbor who objects to the presence in my community of those who repay my hospitality by preaching or practicing or excusing terrorist violence. (The most notorious of them all, Sheikh Abu Hamza, lived in my London street until he was arrested, tried and convicted of terrorist offenses three years ago.) I respond as a father and a husband with certain views about how girls should be educated, how women should be treated in marriage, and so on. Finally, I respond to Islam as an adherent of another faith, and specifically as a Christian, who wishes to live in peace with other faiths but not at any price, and who observes the harsh fate of his fellow-believers in countries that were once heartlands of Christendom with alarm and anger. No less integral to my faith is a special reverence for the Jewish people, our “elder brothers” whom Christians have often treated with such base ingratitude, and hence my response to Islam cannot be divorced from my dismay at the most destructive of the many consequences of jihad: the revival of anti-Semitism, not just in the Muslim world, but in the West too.
All these responses are personal, but they are also not untypical. They have emerged over the years as part of a growing, inescapable awareness of the unique antagonism between Muslims and their neighbors. My natural disposition to exculpate Islam from responsibility for the failings of its adherents has given way to doubts: doubts about whether there is something intrinsic to the theological structure of Islam that is inimical to the delicate membrane of moral law and rational order, deriving ultimately from the Hebrew prophets and the Greek philosophers, that lies at the core of Western civilization. Islam is often spoken of as one of the three Abrahamic religions, and Mohammed himself in the earlier, less belligerent phase of his life, used to speak of Jews and Christians as “peoples of the book.”
Unlike Jews and Christians, however, who despite their orthodoxies were always open to every possible external influence, Muslims have been moving steadily in the opposite direction for nearly a thousand years, turning their backs on the modern world and indeed seeking to reverse the verdict of history on the medieval empires of the Arabs and Turks. After centuries of domination, they found themselves poorer, less educated and hence less powerful than the infidels they despised. Muslims had become the people of the closed book.
It is the radicalism of Islam that makes it so threatening today. Whether or not Islam is necessarily a radical religion, one that constantly returns to its roots, empirically its history is one long sequence of such radical revivals. In the vocabulary of the Left, “radical” is good, and Islam has always held an attraction for liberals with a hankering for the terrible simplicities of a revolutionary faith. E. M. Forster (whose response to Hitler was to offer “two cheers for democracy”) adored the radical simplicity of Islam. Admittedly, he encountered it mainly in the relatively benign form that prevailed when much of the Muslim world was under British rule—a dispensation that the Left destroyed with the premature independence and partition of India, after the ground had been prepared by novels such as A Passage to India. Much of the political ideology of Islamism emerged during the retreat from empire—a retreat which was accompanied by the wholesale abdication of what Kipling naively called the “white man’s burden,” but which the United States still today acknowledges as the thankless task of encouraging freedom and democracy.
Until quite recently, Islam seemed to be a warrior creed that was singularly short of warriors. Not any more. But there is still an inferiority complex, fueled by a large dose of the victim culture that the West cultivates so assiduously. Having ostentatiously rejected the decadence of the West, Islam has in practice absorbed some of its most insidious vices. The fact that Islam never developed the capitalist work ethic and enjoined almsgiving to the rich rather than self-reliance to the poor has enabled radical Muslim preachers to move seamlessly from oriental despotism to occidental welfare state, living comfortably on the tithes of the faithful and the taxes of the infidel.
But the process works the other way, too. Western culture has always included among its various currents the iconoclasm that was once Islam’s most visible challenge to Christianity. One need only think of the Reformation. Still, the dominant tradition in the West had always been a figurative, iconographic, narrative art—until the rise of abstract and conceptual Modernism in the late twentieth century. This was of course an indigenous movement, but it has much in common with Islamic art—not least the fact that, like all forms of iconoclasm, its ideology defines itself by what it is against. And so we have the strange spectacle of aging Sixties radicals aligned with Muslims who preach radicalism of a rather more sanguinary sort. When Karlheinz Stockhausen greeted the destruction of the Twin Towers as “the greatest work of art imaginable in the cosmos,” his effusions were seen by conservatives as the reductio ad absurdum of a generation that fulfilled its self-appointed destiny by the deconstruction of entire traditions of western culture. But Stockhausen was also unwittingly endorsing Islamic iconoclasm, symbolized not only in al Qaeda’s attack on the Manhattan skyline but also in the Taliban’s dynamiting of colossal Buddhas.
There can be few more potent symbols of Western civilization than Cologne Cathedral. Built on the site of the eponymous colony of Colonia, where the Roman world confronted the barbarians beyond the Rhine, this was the shrine of the Three Wise Men from the East. Conceived on a vast scale, left unfinished for five centuries, the erection of its western façade became the national project of German romanticism. Now the cathedral’s two great gothic towers are to be challenged by the minarets of a new mosque to serve the 120,000 Muslims of Cologne. The Cardinal Archbishop, Joachim Meisner, admitted to “an uneasy feeling” at the prospect of the mosque. That was controversial enough, but the cathedral’s new stained glass window by Gerhard Richter, Germany’s best-known living artist, has given a fascinating new twist to the story. Commissioned to replace a nineteenth-century window destroyed in the war, Richter came up with a computer-generated abstract design. But Cardinal Meisner refused to attend the unveiling ceremony. “It belongs in a mosque or another house of prayer, not this one,” he declared. The point to remember is that Richter and Meisner are both of the same generation, but their experience is utterly different: the former is a 1968 radical, the latter an East German who spent forty years resisting the communists. In modern Germany, even a cardinal archbishop is not master of his own cathedral, and his preference for a figurative depiction of the two saints who fell victim to the Nazis, Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe, was overruled.
The Cardinal hit back in a sermon which denounced “degenerate” modern art—a notorious phrase associated with the Nazi exhibition in 1937. In the hullabaloo that followed this breaking of a seventy-year taboo, Meisner’s point—that “where culture is detached from religion, from reverence for God, there religion shrivels into ritualism and culture degenerates”—was of course drowned out. But if Cologne Cathedral is ever turned into a mosque, the Richter window is the one artefact that may be allowed to remain. This is not an absurd thought: after all, Napoleon’s armies used this same cathedral to stable their horses, and the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, once the greatest church in Europe, was a mosque for nearly 500 years until Atatürk secularized it. The combined threats of modern secular culture and militant Islam mean that the fate of Christianity in Europe does indeed hang in the balance.
I have already suggested that the resurgence of Islam has coincided with a renewed threat to Jews everywhere, and the Jewish communities of Europe in particular. Hostility to Jews is not, of course, a uniquely Muslim phenomenon, but neither is it true, as Muslims sometimes claim, that anti-Semitism was alien to Islam until Zionism and the creation of the state of Israel poisoned relations between the two. Anyone who doubts that the tendency of Muslims to blame Jews for their misfortunes has been around for a long time should read Niccolò Capponi’s account of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, which quotes a description of what happened when news of the greatest naval defeat ever suffered by the Ottomans reached the court of Sultan Selim II. Jews in Constantinople sent word to Venice that for three nights the Sultan was kept in the dark, until eventually he demanded to know the truth: “It was answered that it was impossible now to hide the news that his fleet had been all burnt, sunk, and taken by the Christians, with the death of all his great soldiers, captains, and his General. Hearing this he gave a deep sigh and said: ‘So, these treacherous Jews have deceived me!’ And having the Lord’s utterance spread through the palace and the streets, everyone started shouting, ‘Death to the Jews; death to the Jews!’ and there was much fear that this would degenerate in a general massacre.” The only thing that has changed since is that the twisted logic of the scapegoat enables Muslims now to blame the Jews not only for their defeats by the Christians, but also for terrorist attacks perpetrated by Muslims. European Islam has not yet, it seems, absorbed the fact that after 1945 the new Europe’s moral foundation was the promise to the Jewish people: “Never again.”
By contrast, Jews have taken the lead in proposals for co-existence, integration, and peace between Muslims and the rest. The latest example is Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, whose latest book, The Home We Build Together, uses the metaphor of the home to argue against both assimilation and multiculturalism as models of society. Assimilation treats people as if they were guests at a country house, he argues, while multiculturalism treats them like guests in a hotel. Instead, society should welcome newcomers by inviting them to build a home together with the indigenous people. Sacks quotes Milton’s Areopagitica on the building of Solomon’s Temple to demonstrate that “out of many moderate varieties and brotherly dissimilitudes that are not vastly disproportional arises the goodly and gracious symmetry that commends the whole pile and structure.” Sacks shows that the process of contributing together to the recreation of a society will necessarily integrate the outsiders. This is not a social contract, but a covenant that respects the “dignity of difference” between faiths, while requiring in return from the inhabitants both responsibility and civility.
There’s the rub. How do you build a common home with a community that refuses to follow the architect’s plans, that rejects the indigenous style, that dissociates itself from the entire project? At best, you will end, not with a Temple of Solomon, but with a Tower of Babel. Islam, as defined by its leading scholars, cannot be “integrated” into a non-Islamic society; indeed, it defines itself against such ideals. An Islamic republic or monarchy bears superficial resemblances to the kind of society that Western conservatives try to sustain. There is much talk of morality, tradition, religion, family. But the absence of liberty and democracy leads to the perversion of all these things into instruments of tyranny. The politics of Islam has nothing to do with conservatism as it is understood in the West, but is simultaneously eschatological and totalitarian, revolutionary and reactionary. Ayatollah Khomeini warned: “We shall export our revolution throughout the world.”
To meet this challenge, the West will need—as it always has done—alliances with Islamic countries, movements and individuals. Much of the fighting against al Qaeda and the Taliban is being done by Muslims, just as Muslims fought against the Nazis and Soviets. Their courage deserves the highest praise. But such alliances will always be pragmatic. And we need to be aware that some of the most subversive Islamists in the West hail from Muslim lands that have been long-standing allies: Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia. All of these regimes and others like them are weak, and their populations are vulnerable to anti-Western propaganda.
At the risk of being too prescriptive, I would like to summarize what I would hope the conservative response to Islam might be. The West will gain no respect from Muslims if its foreign policy is seen as weak and divided—still less if at home its cultural and religious identity is seen to be in a state of dissolution. Rather than allowing a moral vacuum to open up at the heart of our societies, just waiting to be filled by the revolutionary, reactionary and exclusive prescriptions of Islam, our leaders should be reaffirming the absolute values on which our uniquely inclusive system was founded. Relativism is the tribute paid by reason to toleration. But relativism, whether moral or epistemological, can never be the basis of politics. Skepticism, being quietist, can never prevail against belief. The only answer to atavism is activism. It is better to obviate the need for radical solutions to pseudo-problems by offering conservative solutions to real problems. If Islam is the solution to the decadence of the West, then we have been asking the wrong questions. If Islam is now the problem, however, then the solution can only be a conservative one. Islam will not overwhelm a society that draws its morality from biblical and its rationality from classical sources. The West does not need an Islamic revolution, but a Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman renaissance.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 5, on page 13
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com