The Idler: The Rival

The “Battle of Khartoon”—the international Muslim apoplexy in response to a handful of cartoons of Muhammad in an obscure Danish provincial newspaper—was the most significant world event since 9/11. This is because, in combination with other developments—including the victory of Hamas in a Palestinian election, Iran’s public promise to “wipe Israel off the map,” Muslim riots in France, and innumerable other supporting events—the outpouring declared the non-existence of “moderate Islam.”

By this I do not mean that there are no temperate and reasonable Muslims. For all I know, the great majority of them are, just as the great majority of Germans were temperate and reasonable through the rise of Hitler. They did not count for anything, however, once it became clear the ideologues were in charge. Currently, “mainstream” Muslim politicians are now repeating standard radical Islamist demands in order to stay afloat in a sea of fanaticism.

Needless to say, storm-trooper Nazism and mad-mullah Islamism are not the same kind of enemy. The former, though better organized, was a flash in the pan in the broad scheme of history, whereas the chaotically organized latter is delivering the latest in a 14-century history of Muslim challenges to the survival of our civilization.

Catholics ought to know this in their bones. Over those centuries, among the opponents of Islamic expansion, Western Christendom alone maintained its independence, stood its ground, and even retrieved its losses. Eastern Christendom went down in stages; Zoroastrian, Hindu, Buddhist, and animist resisters went down ninepins in the path of Islamic conquest in other directions. Our Crusades, and the Reconquistas of Iberia and the Hungarian plains, should be remembered in that light. Without them, today we would all be Muslims, or living in dhimmitude.

The Catholic Church is certainly a player in the current encounter between Islam and the West. After 14 centuries of having been the principal player, this should not occasion surprise. But during the greater part of that history, the West was not the citadel of what I would call “gliberal secular humanism.” No civilization had ever been that until the last couple of centuries, when we began taking the experimental step off the post-religious cliff, to see if we could fly.

My impression, from his disconnected remarks on the subject, is that Pope Benedict has a clearer idea of what Islam is and what it portends than anyone at or near the top of the West’s secular political orders, and that he recognizes an unquenchable and, until now, unreformable rival for the hearts and souls of men. This hardly means he is contemptuous of Islam, or that he fails to admire the genuine achievements of the East. But I do not think he is dangerously naïve.

My observation does not extend to the Vatican bureaucracy. I was appalled when the bureaucracy’s first impulse, after the cartoon riots began, was to condemn the supposed insensitivities of Danish cartoonists. Was it not aware of more telling depictions of Islam’s prophet throughout Christian literature and art? It took a week more for Cardinal Sodano to distribute a better response, which was to field Muslim demands for special treatment in the West by pointing to the special treatment of Christians and other religious minorities in the East.

Meanwhile, Western politicians were still flinging panicked and cowardly apologies in the general direction of embassy-torching Muslim mobs. Out of her ancient experience, the Catholic Church must start explaining what is wrong with this approach. Our civilization exists today because, through 14 centuries, we refused to make such concessions.

  • David Warren

    David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is

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