Religion, Reason and Conflict in the 21st Century

What is the exact nature of the famous "clash" between Islam and the
West? Is it merely sibling rivalry, with each civilization having
derived much of its heritage from Judaism? Westerners are competitive
about everything under the sun; indeed, it is one of the marks of
Western civilization. We compete in sport, in the beauty of women, in
culture and inventions, even in demography. The West has specialized
in being competitive and has invented ways of being--or seeming to
be--superior that no other culture has even dreamt of. One might
indeed think that the recent vogue for suicide bombing is Islam
raising the competitive stakes by advancing a claim to be less afraid
of death than decadent Westerners.

But the predominant Islamic response, at least in recent centuries,
has usually been to reject competition and withdraw into Islam as an
essentially superior identity that has no need to compete on such
trivial levels. Competition--that is, rule-bound conflict--seen as a
healthy endeavor is not an idea that comes naturally to Muslims. If
Allah is your guide, what need of else?

For some few Muslims, however, the clash has been more than a
competition. It has become a kind of duel to the death, after which
only one civilization will survive. Here we have conflict, but no
rules. This has been the attitude of those Muslims who despise the
supposedly corroded spirituality of the West and are confident that
the evident superiority of Islamic values will eventually lead to the
political triumph that evaded the Arabs in 732 at Tours and the
Ottomans in 1683 at Vienna. This alarming expression of sheer will
that we call "fundamentalism" is in evidence when Muslims demonstrate
in European cities (as they did over the Salman Rushdie affair)
carrying banners reading: "Islam--our religion today, yours tomorrow."

The Western version of such extremism is so much milder and more
concealed that it hardly looks like a bid for triumph at all. Yet
this Western version does exist. It consists in a universalism that
yields nothing in conviction and determination to Islam itself. The
Western version is to be found in the secular scientific rationalism
that is formulated today in terms of human rights and the development
of international legal institutions to the point where they
constitute, if not a world government, then a world system not far
from it. Islam would, of course, survive as a culture within such a
world system, though it could not be the all-enveloping way of life
that it says it is in both its traditional and fundamentalist forms.
And that means, as many if not most Muslims see it, that it would not
survive at all.

This Western secularism emerged in Europe out of conflict with its
own religious roots in Christianity, which it has largely put to
flight in Europe and reduced to a defensive role in the civil society
of the United States. It is entrenched in the universities, floating
upon a conviction that the secularist elite has liberated itself from
the superstitions and prejudices inherited from less enlightened
times. In America it is specifically identified with the political
doctrine of progressive liberalism, and it has exploited the First
Amendment in order to assail Christianity, seen as its own local form
of superstition, with everything from rational argument to satirical

Phillip Jenkins, a British subject replanted at Pennsylvania State
University, has bad news for secular rationalists. Christianity may
be losing its appeal in the European West, but it is spreading like
wildfire in Africa, Asia and South America. Jenkins is a master of
the extrapolated statistic and is not content with telling us what
has lately happened. His prophetic vision is focused on 2025 and
2050, and what he has to say will bring as little pleasure to Muslims
as it will to secular rationalists.

The Next Christendom is a piece of demographic fundamentalism that
forces us to switch our attention away from the rich and declining
West (or North, as Jenkins often prefers to call it) toward
developments that have long featured at beston the periphery of our
attention. We are dimly aware of festering trouble over religion in
such places as Sudan and Nigeria. Jenkins argues that these
peripheral issues are likely to become central to world politics
within the next few decades because population levels and poverty
rates will determine political significance. It has often been
thought that Islam will soon outpace us all demographically, enjoying
what the French Canadians used to call "the revenge of the cradle",
but it now appears that Christians are, if anything, no less fertile.
Knowing that many of us grasp realities in terms of images, Jenkins
wants to discard the image of Christians as being rich and white.
That is the past. Today, most Christian are poor and black, and that
is what, Jenkins argues, will make all the difference. Revenge indeed.