Religions in Decline and in the Ascendant

The End of Ideology and the Rise of Religion by William D. Rubinstein The Social Affairs Unit, 2009, £10.

Professor William Rubinstein lived in Australia from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. A polymath, he has written on wealth in Australia and Britain, on genocide studies, on Shakespeare and, with his wife Hilary, on the history of the Jews in Australia. His departure was a great loss to Australian intellectual life. Rubinstein’s new publication is a 30,000-word monograph on a number of wide-ranging developments over recent decades. The monograph is subtitled “How Marxism and Other Secular Universalistic Ideologies Have Given Way to Religious Fundamentalism”. In parallel with the fading of Marxism, Rubinstein documents the decline of religion in the West, though he notes some exceptions. While we are secularising, other parts of the world are resacralising, with religion as the driving force, the most dramatic example being the rise of Islamist religious fundamentalism.

Rubinstein convincingly documents his case with quick, broad-brush summaries of the relevant information, and concludes, as we might expect, that “the eschatological violence and terrorism of radical Islam (in particular) and other aggressive expansionist religions must obviously be suppressed as effectively as possible”. But he wonders if non-religious Western liberal societies are up to the task: “It seems clear that neither Marxism nor Western liberal-pluralism can provide the emotional force of religion in the cultural milieu where this has occurred, particularly among disaffected young men.”

Rubinstein’s analysis is convincing and his warning timely; I agree with his major propositions and conclusion. But some of his propositions can be qualified without detracting from his overall thesis. Rubinstein believes that religion and secular Marxism have declined “in parallel” as though these were separate developments. This is to play down the view that Marxism itself has the same structure as a religion, but in a secularised form—communism aimed for a paradise in this life. If this is true, we are witnessing the decline of two religious worldviews, Christianity and Marxism. There are moreover similarities between present-day Islamist fanaticism, and communism and fascism. For all the talk of seventy virgins in paradise, Osama bin Laden wants to take over in this world, just as Stalin and Hitler did. One day Osama says his target is the Jews, on another day it is the Americans or the Saudis or the West or his fellow Muslims. The alleged targets change, just as Hitler’s did, but the constant is a desire for total power, to annihilate one’s enemies, to conquer the world.

This is another form of the “end of ideology”, since ultimately Stalin did not believe in the ideology of communism nor Hitler in that of fascism; they believed only in themselves as successful wielders of brute power, a boot in a human face forever, as George Orwell put it. Islamists don’t believe in Islam, since they slaughter fellow Muslims during their terrorist atrocities, just as Hitler and Stalin caused the death of tens of millions of their own countrymen. Power triumphs over ideology. Rubinstein quotes Bernard Lewis:

Both groups [Islamism and Marxists] profess a totalitarian doctrine, with complete and final answers to all questions on heaven and earth … Both groups offer to their members and followers the agreeable sensation of belonging to a community of believers who are always right, as against an outer world of unbelievers, who are always wrong.

Rubinstein does not centre his argument on the important concept of “modernity”. He argues that as Western secularism has got more materialistic, its attraction to Third World people has declined. I’m not so sure. Islamists have a “fear of freedom”: confronted with the modernist West, they fall back on fundamentalism. Communism and fascism were early reactions against modernity; they offered their true believers the pseudo-security of certainty in an increasingly uncertain world, a balm to existential angst. It is significant that terrorists are drawn, not from Fanon’s “wretched of the earth” in the Third World, but from families who are well-to-do, middle-class, educated and in touch with the West. Carlos “the Jackal”, from a wealthy Venezuelan family, was an early example, not to mention Lenin. It is a terrorism of rising expectations.

Terrorists have a love-hate relationship with the modernising West. The 9/11 terrorists lived high on the hog and visited brothels in the USA before their Twin Towers escapade. Some UK Pakistanis oscillate between the advantages of contemporary Britain and training camps back in Pakistan where they learn to blow Britain up. The ideologist of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, couldn’t handle life in middle America in the 1950s, and subsequently produced diatribes to mask his own uncertainties. It is people who move rapidly from tribal life to high modernity who can’t cope with the gap. Modernity needs to be taken gradually, in steps.

The events of 9/11 announced to the world the Islamist desire for total domination. I think that was a tactical mistake, as it let the cat out of the bag. We didn’t know we in Australia were designated as part of Mantiqi 4, to be ruled over by a Caliphate, but now we are forewarned and forearmed. The danger of an Islamist sanctuary, in Iran, Somalia, Pakistan or Afghanistan, is real. How silly the Western media was in the late 1970s to cheer on the demise of the Shah in Iran.

Rubinstein concludes by recommending a policy of “suppression by military force and by persuasion”. This fits in well with the views of Melanie Phillips, author of Londonistan, who explains that Islamists operate by means of a pincer movement—terrorism on the one hand to make us fear Islam, and ideological propaganda and softening up on the other to make us accept it. We are good at combating the first strategy, but not the second, as Peter Day’s article on apologists for Islamic extremism in the May Quadrant shows. Western liberal societies, which assume that people are reasonable, tolerant and open to argument, aren’t impressive when they try to have dialogue with those who want to destroy them. Rubinstein’s monograph is an important document in explaining this continuing battle of ideas.

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