in the garden


Nov 2001 Journal

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Purification by Fire

"The amount of tears and laughter in the world are always in equilibrium", says Beckett in one of his plays. One is tempted to add that the same balance exists globally between love and hate. Since 1945, while in Europe such erstwhile enemies as France and Germany and NATO and the Warsaw Pact have begun to feel a degree of affection for one another, in the Muslim world hatred for the West has festered and intensified.

The grievances behind this vicious hatred are often artificially exacerbated to assuage the vengeful longings of a disturbed - not to say diseased - national psyche. (What else could explain the phenomenon of hundreds of thousands of - mainly underage - Iranian soldiers throwing their lives away in the 'human wave' tactics of the 1980s war against Iraq?)

That grievances can be ratcheted up to monstrous proportions is demonstrated by how differently the German public reacted to similar events only 27 years apart. While the Germany of 1918 went into paroxysms of outrage over territory lost to the 'Polish corridor' under the Treaty of Versailles, the Germany of 1945 accepted far greater territorial losses with relative equanimity.

The birth of Israel generated 'Polish corridor' style outrage in the Muslim world and, just as Germany's vengeful assault on Poland in 1939 triggered a world war, so Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and other Arab mega-murderers view attacks on Israel as a potential trigger for a cataclysmic showdown between Islam and the West.

Bin Laden, in particular, harks back to a Muslim theological scheme which separates the world into two distinct halves - dar-al-Islam (the Sphere of Islam) and dar-al-harb (the Sphere of War). The latter term, by implication, places a religious obligation on Muslims to make war on the infidel part of the world.

Nearly one and a half millennia ago the faith which, in undiluted form, still fires today's Islamic fanatics, was spread over huge areas of Africa, the Middle East and Asia by the sword under the banner of the crescent moon. Turkish armies even reached the centre of Europe just over three centuries ago. Since then Islam has gone into reverse, and over the last 200 years Muslim countries have declined into Western colonial possessions or dependencies.

This decline dealt a humiliating blow to Islamic self-consciousness. In some countries, notably Turkey, the elites realised that they had to break out of their medieval cocoon and opted for secularisation. Elsewhere, the tide flowed in the opposite 'direction'. When the Raj withdrew from the Indian sub-continent Islamic religious fervour found political expression in the bloodsoaked creation of Pakistan (even though Gandhi and Nehru had promised Muslims equal rights in a secular India). The intransigence with which Jinnah insisted on partition mirrored that of the Palestinian leaders (including the pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem) in resisting partition in 1936 and 1947. The 1948 Israeli War of Independence ended in a de facto partition, which the Arabs again rejected. Their renewal of conflict in 1967 led to the total disappearance of Palestine from the map.

At the lowest ebb of their strength - the result of a half-century of intransigence - the Palestinians brought the terror weapon into play by firstly blowing up three hijacked planes in Jordan and then murdering 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Hereafter terrorism became the Palestinians' preferred weapon and, after losing East Jerusalem (which contains Al-Aqsa, the third holiest place in Islam), the secular nationalist Arafat could also pose as a warrior for the Islamic faith.

The same blurred image - half-nationalist, half-Islamicist - characterises Saddam Hussein. And this despite the fact that he made war consecutively on clergy-led Iran and fellow-Arab Kuwait. The latter breach of international law provoked the Gulf War, in which the Saudis - guardians of Islam's two holiest places - permitted the stationing of US troops on their soil. It was this 'defilement' of Saudi Arabia's sacred Islamic soil by an infidel presence that Bin Laden cites - alongside the existence of Israel - as his main motive for fighting a jihad.

Bin Laden's monstrous atrocity of 11 September informs the world of a painful truth - that pure hate 'legitimised' by a purifying religion is a force powerful enough to mobilise multitudes to the point of suicide. This hate is a far more all-embracing phenomenon than reaction to Israeli ill-treatment of the Palestinians, or to the US sanctions on Iraq - it is a rejection of the last half-millennium of world history. During that time both the Mogul empire in India and the Turkish empire in Europe collapsed - and Islam turned from a triumphalist faith into a religion of the conquered and colonised. When the formerly Christian, and now increasingly materialist, West - which strict Muslims hated on both counts - gained global dominance, a gulf opened up between the First and Third Worlds. In consequence, Bin Laden and his psychopathic cohorts can tap into the frustrations of millions of desperately poor Muslims.

The led are desperately poor and the leaders desperately ignorant. Mullah Omar, the leader of Afghanistan, is so benighted that he has never met a non-Muslim. In his eyes, this is a virtue which enables him to keep the air he breathes pure. Purity is likewise an obsession with Bin Laden. He turned against the Saudi regime because it allowed contaminated infidels on to its soil. He targeted the World Trade Center because trade promotes intercourse between peoples of all faiths and of none - and because in making all participants richer it makes them less desirous of the celestial paradise. And finally he targeted dynamic, hedonistic New York, the city that never sleeps, because it is the embodiment of modernity - a modernity which so offends Islamic zealots that they wish to extirpate it with fire.

next article:God Bash America