Edward Gibbon by Joshua Reynolds: Preferred Islam to Christianity
Once again, Islam takes centre-stage, while the West watches anxiously on. From Brussels to Beijing, terrorists are still slaughtering civilians. Across Africa, from Libya to Nigeria and Kenya, fragile states are falling apart under the Islamist assault. In the Middle East, the Syrian civil war has now spread to Iraq and threatens to destabilise other states. Further East, Pakistan is under Taliban attack even before Afghanistan is evacuated by Nato. We are now seeing the results of President Obama's premature withdrawal from Iraq, his encouragement of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, his irresolution in Syria, his appeasement of Iran and his failure more generally to grasp the scale of the Islamist challenge to the West. Elliott Abrams and Alexander Woolfson show how the world is paying a heavy price for a US administration that lacks a coherent strategy and a Nato that is not fit for purpose.
In Britain, the dispute between Michael Gove and Theresa May over the infiltration of schools by "extremists" has overshadowed the equally alarming consequences of such indoctrination. Hundreds of young Muslims emerge from the schools and mosques of cities such as Birmingham and Bradford, volunteer to fight for the Islamist cause in Syria, then return to bring jihad back to Britain. The attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels was the work of just such a jihadist from France, and it may only be a matter of time before horrors perpetrated in the name of Islam on the road to Damascus are repeated on the streets of London.
The world is still reeling from one of the periodic waves of fundamentalism that have expanded the Umma since the days of the prophet. Looking back to the first rise of Islam in the 7th century, Gibbon reflects on the secret of its success in Volume the Fifth of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: "Mahomet was alike instructed to preach and to fight, and the union of these opposite qualities, while it enhanced his merit, contributed to his success: the operation of force and persuasion, of enthusiasm and fear, continually acted on each other, till every barrier yielded to their irresistible power." The perennial refusal of Islamic doctrine to distinguish between, let alone to separate, mosque and state, has hitherto been an almost insuperable obstacle to Muslim acceptance of modernity and integration into secular society; but it is also the secret weapon of jihad. The chimera of a new Caliphate lies behind the sudden collapse of Iraqi democracy, now unprotected by US troops, under the onslaught of an Islamist blitzkrieg.
Although Gibbon preferred Islam to Christianity, he did not disguise the former's hostility to Judaism; in fact, he called Islam's founder "the enemy of the Jews". Compare this description with the latest Islamist video to go viral. Shot by ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), which has been responsible for the worst atrocities in Syria and now for the conquest of Mosul and Tikrit, the lyrics to this battle hymn include the following line: "Break the crosses and destroy the lineage of the grandsons of monkeys." The reference to monkeys recalls the anti-Semitic depictions of Jews in Islamic scripture and tradition. The fact that one of the first European jihadists to return from Syria chose Jews as his first victims is not accidental. But it is also important not to overlook — as so many do — the new militancy directed at Christians of terrorist insurgents such as Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and ISIS. Elsewhere in this issue, Inna Lazareva reports on the fortunes of Christians in Bethlehem and Nazareth. Unlike the anti-Zionist narrative promoted by most of the churches, she finds a new realism among Christians about the state of Israel, which they see as their protector against Islamist persecution. Some are even ready to fight in the IDF.
It may be objected that Islam is the faith of, in Frantz Fanon's phrase, the wretched of the earth. As such, they cannot threaten the mighty edifice of the West. We should look, rather, to Russia and China. Both are far more formidable potential foes, militarily and economically, than any Muslim state. But neither China nor Russia boasts an inspiration to compare with Islam and its prophet. Gibbon again: "It is not the propagation but the permanency of his religion that deserves our wonder." Other peoples who have settled in Europe have quickly adapted; not so the Muslim communities who make up an ever-growing proportion of the younger generation.
Islam, then, is here to stay in Europe. Non-Muslims too must adapt, and we do. Christian and Jewish leaders incessantly reach out, not only to each other, but to their Muslim counterparts. Yet their gestures are rarely reciprocated. A succession of Catholic pontiffs has paid tribute to the victims of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, the memorial site in Israel. In 2000, Pope John Paul came and pleaded for "silence in which to remember". In 2009, Benedict XVI came and declared: "May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten!" And this year Pope Francis quoted Genesis there: "Adam, where are you? Where are you, O man? What have you come to?" The leaders of the Catholic Church were eloquent in their penitence. But is it possible to imagine the leaders of Islam making any such gesture — or even setting foot in Israel?
To the present, the future is always opaque, but the past is ever more transparent. The West needs to learn again the history lesson that finding a modus vivendi with Islam has only ever been achieved from a position of strength.