Posts Tagged ‘Europe’

Some Thoughts on ISIS

November 22, 2015

There has been a lot written lately on what should be done with the growing threat of terrorism sponsored by the Islamic State and about Islamic radicalism generally. I don’t imagine I have anything significant to contribute to this discussion but here are some thoughts, for whatever they are worth.

One reason for the appeal of Islamic radicalism in the Middle East that doesn’t seem to get much attention is that the recent history of the Islamic world, particularly at its Arabic speaking core is largely a history of repeated failure. Generally, the Middle East has had a very difficult time adjusting to the modern world. With the exception of Israel, which doesn’t really count since it is a Western transplant, the countries of the Middle East are backwards and poor with repressive, corrupt governments. They produce almost nothing the rest of the world wants in trade, except for oil. They contribute little to the progress of science and technology. Their militaries may be well equipped with purchases from the United States and Russia, but they are ill trained and not very effective, particularly against any Western power. It must be very humiliating, since Islam promises that the Muslims are the best of men who enjoy Allah’s favor, to see the infidel West enjoying success and prosperity while they languish in poverty and powerlessness, especially for proud, young men.

This may be part of the reason there is so much hatred of Israel among the Arabs. Israel is in the same part of the world, has much the same resources and geography though without oil, and even some of the same culture among the Jews from the Middle East, yet Israel is a vibrant, prosperous country that has contributed far more to the world than one might expect from a country of its size, more than the entire rest of the Middle East combined. There might be a good deal less hatred of Israel if Israel were just another third world sewer.

It is not that the Muslims haven’t tried to modernize. For most of the twentieth century,

various Muslim countries have attempted modernize, secularize, and westernize themselves, with varying degrees of success. Kemel Ataturk in Turkey, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran, the Communists in Afghanistan, and others such as Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi all tried to transform the states they ruled. Unfortunately, these Muslim leaders picked up all the worst ideas that the West had to offer,  such as socialism, communism, militant nationalism, and others, combined with traditional Middle Eastern despotism created nothing but a series of  repressive failed states. Modernization and westernization didn’t seem to work. It is not too surprising that many people began to believe that the Middle East was going in the wrong direction. . Maybe the failure of the Islamic world was due to them abandoning the ways of Islam.Maybe instead of becoming more Western, they should become more Islamic. One by one these secular dictators have fallen, to be replaced by Islamic rulers. Turkey is something of an exception since it has long had the forms of democracy if not always the realty. However Ataturk’s secular legacy has been increasingly challenged over the last decade with the rise to power of the Justice and Development Party.

It is also worth noting that all these twentieth century efforts to modernize the Middle East were largely the top down efforts of a small, educated, westernized elite and enacted by force, while the more religious and traditional majority have been indifferent or actively hostile to efforts to modernize and westernize their countries. It doesn’t seem as if the westernized elite spent much time or effort trying to educate or change the minds of the masses in the Islamic world nor to try to achieve some sort of synthesis between Islamic and Western values. They have remained nominal Muslims while trying to undermine the influence of Islam in the people’s lives. It should not be surprising that the majority of people throughout the Middle East have tended to resent these efforts as an attempt to force an alien, irreligious culture on them. To make matters worse, the secular modernization efforts don’t seem to have worked. Countries like Egypt, Iraq or Iran have not become as wealthy and powerful as Western nations despite any attempts at westernization. The Westernized elites and despots have failed them.

Considered this way, the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East is not really that different from the revolts against the elite in the West. ISIS and al-Qaeda are not that different in principle from the TEA Party in the United States or the UK INdependence Party in Britain or any of a number of other populist movements throughout the West. ISIS and the TEA Party both seek to revive a former greatness by going back to fundamentals. What makes all the difference is that Tea Partiers study the constitution and run for office. Radical Muslims study the Koran and engage in terrorism. What makes this difference? In the West, we have learned to settle our differences more or less peacefully. In the Middle East, they seem to have not.

It is often said that the Middle East is a tribal society and that is the cause of so much violence in the region. Maybe, but the West is tribal too. Look at a map of any major city in the United States and you may still find neighborhoods labeled “Chinatown”, “Little Italy” or the like, a relic of the days when immigrants came and settled among people of their own nation, or tribe. Every human society is prone to factions. Why is it that in the West the tribes have somehow managed to learn to live in peace and even to blend together while in the Middle East old hatreds continue for generations to the detriment of the common good?

Part of the appeal of Islamic radicalism, as well as the original appeal of Islam in Mohammed’s time, is that it promises to surmount these petty differences between tribes and nations carved out from colonial empires and create a united kingdom under the rule of God. No doubt many Muslims feel that the disaster began when the Islamic community began to fracture into competing sects and empires. In the twentieth century, there was a strong pan-Arab nationalist movement promising to unite the Arabic people. If Arab nationalism didn’t unite the Middle East, perhaps Islamism might.

I don’t think it is very useful to blame one president or another or one policy or another for the rise of ISIS. Something like ISIS would have happened regardless of what we have done. It is tempting to believe that a superpower is the cause of everything that happens in the world but much is beyond our control. The cultural attitudes and societal trends that have led to present conditions have been occurring for a very long time and much depends on how the people in the region resolve, or fail to resolve their problems. Ultimately, we cannot solve their problems for them.

The West has had a violent, tumultuous history on its path to to liberty and democracy, and perhaps some parts of Europe have not quite completed the journey. It took periods of terrible bloodshed, the Wars of Religion during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Napoleonic Wars of the nineteenth century and the World Wars of the twentieth century to make Europe what it is today. It maybe that the Middle East must go through a generation of bloodshed to convince the people to live in peace. If so, than the only thing we can or should do is leave them alone to fight it out, taking care that the conflicts do not spill over outside the Middle East. It  may also be that allowing a generation of Muslims to live under an Islamic State is the only way to sour them on the whole idea. The people in Iran do not seem to be very enthusiastic about Islam these days. They have lived under their own Islamic State and they are sick of it. We would like to think that we can solve the world’s problems, but maybe this time we can’t . Maybe the best we can manage is to protect ourselves and hope for the best.



Christian Revival in France

February 22, 2015

It is a commonly held viewpoint in our times that history moves in only one direction, from the benighted past to the enlightened present. This viewpoint is justified in the fields of science and technology. We obviously have much greater knowledge of the natural world and far better tools and machines than our ancestors could have dreamed of. This progressive view of history is less justified in politics and culture. In those fields it is less clear what really constitutes progress and whether history is really moving in a straight line toward some end. What I am trying to get at is that our ideas about what is right and wrong, or true and untrue, or desirable and undesirable are not necessarily superior to the ideas of our ancestors nor is it certain that we are forever moving in a certain direction toward the truth or the good, etc.

I mentioned, in passing, in a recent post that the idea of our time being uniquely liberated in its sexual mores while all past ages were repressed and puritanical is not really true. These sorts of cultural movements seem to go in cycled. A similar idea is held about the status of religion in society. It is often believed that religion is a relic of past ages in which people were ignorant and superstitious. In our more enlightened times, in which we have solved many of the mysteries of the universe, religion is no longer needed. As people become more educated, the influence of religion must fade. Europe is held as an example of this phenomena. The continent has become steadily more secular over the last two centuries and surely before long the people of Europe will be entirely free of religion. The fact that the United States is just as advanced as Europe in science and technology but has remained consistently more religious than Europe may seem to disprove the rule that societies become more secular as they advance, but the US is, in some ways,culturally backward compared to Europe, especially in the Red States. After all, those ignorant Americans still don’t have nationalized medicine or strict gun control. In twenty years, the US will be just as secular as Europe. After all, that is the way history is moving. So goes the argument.

But, perhaps not. Religious observance too tends to run in cycles. Periods of great fervor,even fanaticism in religion alternate with periods of laxity and skepticism. Atheism is by no means a new phenomena. There were atheists in ancient Greece and Rome, and curiously enough, they used the very same arguments against religion that the so-called New Atheists use. The current period of secularism in Europe may be followed by a religious period and there is no reason to believe that the US must inevitably follow in Europe’s footsteps.

Consider this article from The Week, about a possible religious revival in France.

On a recent Sunday, my family and I only showed up 10 minutes early for Mass. That meant we had to sit in fold-out chairs in the spillover room, where the Mass is relayed on a large TV screen. During the service, my toddler had to go to the bathroom. To get there, we had to step over a dozen people sitting in hallways and corners. This is business as usual for my church in Paris, France.

I point this out because one of the most familiar tropes in social commentary today is the loss of Christian faith in Europe in general, and France in particular. The Wall Street Journal recently fretted about the sale of “Europe’s empty churches.”

Could it be, instead, that France is in the early stages of a Christian revival?

Yes, churches in the French countryside are desperately empty. There are no young people there. But then, there are no young people in the French countryside, period. France is a modern country with an advanced economy, and that means its countryside has emptied, and that means that churches built in an era when the country’s sociological makeup was quite different go empty. In the cities — which is where people are, and where cultural trends gain escape velocity — the story is quite different.

This is not an isolated phenomenon. My wife and I now live in an upper-crust neighborhood with all the churches full of upwardly-mobile professionals. When we were penniless grad students, we lived in a working class neighborhood and on Sunday our church was packed with immigrant families and hipster gentrifiers.

It was only recently that I was struck by the fact that, imperceptibly, the majority of my college and grad school friends who were Christmas-and-Easter-Catholics when we met now report going to Church every Sunday and praying regularly. On social media, they used to post about parties; now they’re equally likely to post prayers for persecuted Middle East Christians or calls to help the homeless over the holidays.

My friends live all over town; some of them are young singles who move around a lot; all of them report looking for those mythical “empty churches” we hear so much about — and failing to find them. In fact, it’s closer to the other way around: If you don’t show up early, you might have to sit on the floor — and people are happy to do it.

The massive rallies in France, underwritten by the Catholic Church, against the recent same-sex marriage bill stunned the world: Isn’t France the poster child for sexually-easygoing secularism? Perhaps more than a million people took to the streets, and disproportionately young ones, too. (Compare Britain’s “whatever” response to its own same-sex marriage act, passed around the same time.) But they forgot that a century of militant secularism didn’t kill the Old Faith — it merely drove it underground. And perhaps by privatizing faith, the secularists unwittingly strengthened it; after all, the catacombs have always been good to Christianity.

There is more.

I hope that this is really the case, that there is a revival of Christianity in France and ultimately Europe, with the difference that there will be no more state sponsored churches. The melding of church and state that took place in the late Roman Empire and afterwards has been very bad for Christianity. Most of the bad behavior attributed to Christianity, which has served to discredit the church in the eyes of many, has been the result of an institution backed by the state, and employing coercion. Whatever form a possible revival of Christianity in Europe might take, it would certainly be better than the alternatives. I believe that secularism is a dead end. Man does not live by bread alone. He needs something higher to believe in. If people do not have religion, they will find something else, or they will cease to live. As it is, Europe is dying.

The are many who believe that the future of Europe is in Islam. They project a future in which thanks to a higher birthrate and conversions, the Muslim population of Europe will come to be a majority and impose their culture and values on Europe. I am not so certain of this, myself. It is unwise to take current demographic trends and project them in a straight line into the indefinite future. People do react to events and it may be that the Europeans will wake up to the threat to Islamization. Whatever happens, the influence of Islam is not a good one, and the less such influence Islam has on Europe and the world, the better. Secularism cannot really counter Islam. You can’t fight something with nothing. If the Europeans do not want to descend in the poverty and barbarism of the Islamic world, they will have to find a competing ideology, and what better than their Christian heritage.


Gerbert d’Aurillac

September 8, 2014

The Middle Ages are well-known as the Christian Dark Ages, a time in which the Catholic Church controlled the intellectual life of Europe and in which any learning, science or independent thought was ruthlessly suppressed. This was a time in which people were proud of being ignorant and viewed learning with suspicious as a form of witchcraft. As Ayn Rand put it,

The infamous times you call the Dark Ages were an era of intelligence on strike, when men of ability went underground and lived undiscovered, studying in secret, and died, destroying the works of their mind, when only a few of the bravest martyrs remained to keep the human race alive. Every period ruled by mystics was an era of stagnation and want, when most men were on strike against existence, working for less than their barest survival, leaving nothing but scraps for their rulers to loot, refusing to think, to venture, to produce, when the ultimate collector of their profits and the final authority on truth or error was the whim of some gilded degenerate sanctioned as superior to reason by divine right and by grace of a club.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the intellectual stagnation of this period than the life and career of Gerbert d’Aurillac.

English: Impression of Pope Sylvester II, born...

English: Impression of Pope Sylvester II, born Gerbert d’Aurillac.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gerbert d’Aurillac was a French cleric and scholar who lived from 946-1003. He was born in the town of Belliac and in 963 he entered the monastery of St. Gerald of Aurillac. His intelligence impressed the abbot of the monastery and when Count Borrell of Barcelona visited in 967, the abbot asked the count to take Gerbert with him to Spain so he could study mathematics. At this time Spain was divided between the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate and the Christian Franks, like Count Borrell, who owed nominal allegiance to France. Moslem Spain was experiencing a golden age of learning in philosophy, natural sciences and mathematics and Gerbert eagerly learned all he could from both Christians and Moslems. In 969, Count Borrell took Gerbert with him to Rome where he met Pope John XIII and the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. Otto hired Gerbert to tutor his son, the future Otto II and later allowed Gerbert to study and then teach at the cathedral school at Rheims.

Gerbert took back to Christendom the learning he had acquired in Spain. He introduced arabic numerals to Europe, though they didn’t catch on until the time of Fibonacci two centuries later. He also reintroduced the abacus, which had been lost in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, along with astronomical equipment and learning, including an astrolabe and he constructed an organ powered by hydraulics. He became the foremost scholar and scientist in Christian Europe. He experimented with building mechanical clocks. Naturally, there were rumors that Gerbert dabbled in sorcery. He was supposed to have a bronze head that could answer questions put to it. Some said he had learned more than mathematics and astronomy in Spain. He was also said to have learned forbidden arts and to have made pacts with devils.

So, what happened to this scholar in the Age of Ignorance and Superstition. Was he burned at the stake for witchcraft? Defrocked and expelled from the clergy? Executed as a heretic. No, they made him pope. Gerbert d’Aurilac reigned as Pope Silvester II from 999 to 1003. He did not get to be pope because of his scholarship, to be sure, though his intellectual reputation did help. Remember that he was the tutor to the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II. Otto II thought much of Gerbert and made him the abbot of the monastery of Bobbio. This did not work out well so Otto gave him other posts, including tutoring his son Otto III, who reigned as Holy Roman Emperor from 996 to 1002. Otto III was only 16 when he became emperor, but he already had big plans to restore the Roman Empire to its former glory. As part of his dream, Otto III patronised learning and helped the careers of men like Gerbert. Unfortunately, because he took the Roman part of Holy Roman Emperor seriously, he tended to interfere in Italian and Roman politics and to neglect his German subjects.

Pope Gregory V was Otto III’s cousin so he made Gerbert Bishop of Ravenna and when Pope Gregory died in 999, Otto thought he would be a natural choice as pope and used his influence as Holy Roman Emperor to get Gerbert the job. Gerbert took the name Silvester II,  after Sylvester I, who had been pope during the reign of the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine. If Otto III wanted to restore the Roman Empire, than Gerbert would play the same helpful role that Sylvester I did with Constantine.

English: Pomoc Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor

English: Pomoc Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sylvester III wasn’t a particularly successful pope. He Romans resented Otto III for his interest in Italian politics and they disliked having one of his associates imposed upon them as Pope. The Romans viewed Sylvester II as a low-born foreigner and rebelled against him and Otto III in 1001. Sylvester II was obliged to flee to Ravenna. Meanwhile Otto III died in 1002 while campaigning in Italy, his dreams of restoration unfulfilled. Sylvester II was able to return to Rome, but he died the following year. His legacy turned out to be more lasting than his patrons as he had helped to inaugurate the revival of learning in Europe that became known as the High Middle Ages.

I hope the story of Gerbert d’Aurillac aka Pope Sylvester II will help to put to rest the idea of the Christian Dark Ages. The learned men of Europe were aware that they had fallen behind the Muslims of Spain and had lost much that was known in ancient times. They were not proud of this ignorance nor were their minds on strike. They were trying their best to learn what they could from others.  It is curious that when the Europeans began to make contact with other civilizations, the Muslim world, Indian, China, for the most part these other peoples were not very interested in learning about the, by then, superior technology of the Europeans. Perhaps it was this curiosity and willingness to learn from other cultures shown by men like Gerbert d’Aurillac, that caused the West to pull ahead and become the most advanced civilization in the world.


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