The other night I saw a trailer on TV for the new Robo Cop movie. “Meet the Future,” said the accompanying caption. And, if the trailer is to be believed, the future will be a high-tech world where police don futuristic armor and ride futuristic motorcycles.
The idea that the future will be like nothing we’ve ever experienced before is a staple of science fiction. But here in the non-fiction world, it’s beginning to look like “meet the past” is the more likely scenario for our future.
In large swaths of the world, the past has already arrived. Take the recent interview on Egyptian TV in which a thoughtful, bespectacled white-bearded cleric explains the proper way to beat your wife. According to the cleric, who looks for all the world like a wizard from the set of The Lord of the Rings, there is a “beating etiquette”: “don’t break her teeth, don’t poke her in the eye” and “no more than ten times” (whether daily, weekly, or monthly is not specified).
Along with “proper” wife-beating, polio and pirates are also making a comeback. Polio is reappearing because the health workers in Pakistan and Nigeria who administer the vaccine are being killed off by strict constructionists of sharia who believe that vaccinations are un-Islamic (or else, an American plot to sterilize Muslim children). This is not simply a Third World problem. In Scotland last year, a very large-scale public vaccination campaign was shut down following complaints from Muslim families.
Piracy, which most of us had assumed was safely confined to Davy Jones Locker, has also resurfaced. If you live near the coast of Somalia, it’s a profitable way to make a living, or was, anyway, until the shipping companies began to institute stringent anti-piracy measures. In the heyday of Somali piracy (that is to say, about two years ago), the pirates were capturing cargo ships and oil tankers of a size which would have made Blackbeard turn green with envy.
More ominous signs of the past’s re-emergence are everywhere. According to numerous reports, the World Cup stadium in Qatar and its surrounding infrastructure is being built by what amounts to slave labor. Nine hundred migrant laborers have already died from being forced to work in the 122° heat. Meanwhile, stories of sex slavery have become a feature of the daily news. Again, this is not just a Third World phenomenon. A recent comprehensive study in the UK reveals that Muslim gangs have been sexually exploiting British children on a large scale for more than two decades. By one estimate, at least 10,000 girls, most of them between eleven and sixteen, are kept as virtual sex slaves at any one time.
Stoning for adultery? Amputation for theft? Death for apostasy? All these supposed relics of the past have arisen from their graves like Dracula at twilight. Perhaps the most disturbing intrusion of the past into the present is the revival of decapitation. After taking the city of Mosul, ISIS fighters proceeded to behead captured soldiers and policemen on a mass scale. And the Internet, the most iconic modern invention, now carries photos of Islamic warriors posing with their severed-head trophies.
What does the future look like? Unfortunately, it’s beginning to look like the distant past. The question then arises—how did we let ourselves get blindsided by the past?
The answer, paradoxically, is that the return of the worst features of the past has been made possible by so-called forward-looking people—the ones who think that every new idea is ipso facto a neat idea. These would include all those who think that relativism and multiculturalism (which is really just a variation of relativism) are advanced forms of thinking. But, in fact, these “latest” ways of viewing the world have opened the door to the return of the scary past. They guarantee the return of the primitive precisely because they disallow any distinction between the primitive and the civilized. If you take the multicultural premise to heart, then you can’t really make any judgments about the rightness or wrongness of any behavior, provided it has cultural support. Polygamy? Child brides? Honor killing? They’re just cultural variations. Besides, with our record of imperialism, slavery, and sexism, who are we to say?
The French have a proverb: “to understand all is to forgive all.” But in our attempts to understand and accept all points of view, we are in danger of forgetting all—that is, all the very good reasons for which our culture has rejected those variations. Not to put too fine a point on it, some traditions deserve to be relegated to the past.
The trouble with trying to understand other cultures is that we often try to understand them from a narrow “modern” perspective that arose in the sixties and seventies. This perspective is materialistic, ahistorical, and therapeutic in outlook. It prizes relativism, diversity, and tolerance and, although it retains a certain vague spirituality, it is essentially secular. From this viewpoint, religions are quaint traditions that are clung to for sentimental reasons, not driving cultural forces that mold and shape history.
The shortcomings of the “modern” view can be seen most clearly in regard to Islam. Islam, as you may have noticed, is the moving force behind many of the unpleasant protrusions of the past into the present. Yet our bien pensants have largely failed to understand it. Because they live mentally in a provincial secular time warp (the sixties and seventies) they are ill-equipped to understand religion—let alone a religion that is willing to wait centuries for what it wants.
Thus, we don’t take Islamists at their word when they talk about their desire to wage jihad for the sake of Allah. Nor do we take seriously their determination to conquer the world for Allah. Modern people don’t talk like that or think like that. Consequently, we tend to interpret their dissatisfaction in terms that are familiar to us. Whether it’s Boko Haram in Nigeria, al- Shabab in Somalia, or the Taliban in Afghanistan, we assume that their real motivation stems from poverty, oppression, or ignorance. Send them some foreign aid and some teachers and all will be well.
When we do listen to representatives of Islam, we only pay attention to those who are willing to confirm our pre-existing thought world. Islamic apologists who maintain that Islam is a religion of peace and justice and that violence has nothing to do with Islam are the ones who get a hearing, because what they say fits so comfortably into our established narrative.
That narrative is largely determined by fashion, not facts. It’s fashionable to think of the spirituality of Third World peoples as being somehow superior to that of Christians. It’s not fashionable to talk about Islamic supremacism, jihad, or the return of the caliphate. But, as events are now showing, these fashionable ideas are already dangerously out of date. It may have seemed funny a year or so ago to ridicule those who worried about sharia law or the reestablishment of the caliphate. It no longer seems quite so funny.
Islam is willing to wait for what it wants, but sometimes—as in the middle of the seventh century—it moves with surprising speed. This seems to be one of those times, and unless we quickly update our thinking, the times will overtake us. Because we prefer to live mentally in the near past, the worst aspects of the far past have arrived on our doorstep.