I remember when Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister, to choose a time not too far distant in the past. I can’t remember Islam figuring in the public debate at the time. Unfortunately, I was also around – although terribly young, you understand — when Egypt took centre stage at the time of the Suez crisis. Anthony Eden likened Nasser to Hitler but not, you might note, to Saladin.
Until its last decade, the whole of the twentieth century insulated the evolving Western mind, generation after generation, from any problem related to Islam. There were devastating world wars, the Great Depression, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and, of course, for forty years, the Cold War and fear of nuclear annihilation. Oil crises, one of which effectively put paid to the spendthrift Whitlam government, came and went. Then, of course, the great moral crisis of our time, global warming, captured the headlines and our attention.
I don’t want to walk through every traumatic event of the twentieth century. It is sufficient to say that the Muslim problem apparently came out of the blue near to the end of the century. As Muhammad and his message have been around since the seventh century it is clear, is it not, that what we are now variously seeing in many places where Muslims are present in large numbers — terrorism, bombings, butchery, beheadings, rapes, enslavement, general mayhem and, almost worst of all, endemic whining — must be aberrant. Some kind of Darwinian chance mutation must have occurred, spawning a violent scolding Islamic lookalike.
Thus, if this explanation has substance, there are two Islams; the genuine and the mutant. To sharpen the distinction between the two, Islam proper has been given the mantle of the ‘religion of peace’, and its aberrant offshoot badged ‘radical Islam’.
It is little wonder that this classification has caught on. It provides enormous relief. It is not hard to see why. After all, we can surely deal with a radical offshoot of Islam in circumstances where most of the 1.6 billion (and rising) Muslims in the world follow the religion of peace.
It also has particular appeal to those on the left who automatically want to see good in ‘the other’, particularly if they have non-white skin. But, really, its acceptance has cut across political boundaries. As the person who breathed life into it; George W. Bush, of course, bought it hook line and sinker. But he is just one among a retinue of fellow-traveller conservative politicians in the Western world.
Unfortunately, they have all bought a pup. Apart from suffering from cock-eyed optimism they are suffering from the common affliction of being in thrall of the very recent past and of being oblivious of more distant events. You get a sense of the prevalence of this affliction when supporters of any team are asked to name the best players of all time. Invariably long dead stars get scant mention.
Our memories are short because our lives are short. Hence it is concluded that radical Islam has sprouted up out of nowhere and must be aberrant. Let’s augment our memories. We don’t have to go back as far as Richard the Lionheart. We can piggyback on Winston Churchill (The River War, 1899).
“How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy…No stronger retrograde force exists in the world…Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith…were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it (Islam) has vainly struggled, the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.”
Let’s go back a bit further to 1830 and to an essay by the sixth president of the USA, John Quincy Adams. (In Joseph Blunt, The American Annual Register)
“The precept of the Koran is, perpetual war against all who deny, that Mahomet is the prophet of God. The vanquished may purchase their lives, by the payment of tribute; the victorious may be appeased by a false and delusive promise of peace; and the faithful follower of the prophet, may submit to the imperious necessities of defeat: but the command to propagate the Moslem creed by the sword is always obligatory, when it can be made effective.”
So there it is (and, by the way, both pieces are worth reading in their entirety). Radical Islam appears to be genuinely part and parcel of Islam. Certainly one size does not fit all. ISIS is clearly at the extreme edge. But broadly speaking radical Islam is an expression of Islam. It simply went into enforced hibernation. It kept below the radar, as it were, for a lengthy period in the face of heavily armed and technically superior adversaries fighting and competing with each other.
What of the religion of peace? Like the Piltdown Man, it has never existed at all. It began as a figment in George Bush’s mind after the Twin Towers were brought down. Osama bin Laden was reported to have seen the irony in that; an irony which seems to have escaped most Western commentators. It’s as well we catch on before we are buried.