Tuesday, October 05, 2004

How the Irish Became Catholics

Left to their own devices people come to a bewildering array of conclusions on matters of religion. National religious uniformity doesn’t just happen. When it is not imposed by sheer force, it usually comes into being because a particular religion becomes a symbol of national unity in the face of foreign aggression. In the first century of the Reformation, for example, Poland was famous for its religious diversity and toleration. It was only after the repeated invasions of the Lutheran Swedes that the Poles became increasingly Catholic, an identity which was reinforced in our times by resistance to the atheistic Soviets. Similarly, it wasn’t some mysterious national piety that made the Irish so loyal to Rome. The Jesuits wouldn’t have been anything like so successful without Cromwell and King William.

Our activities in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East are underwriting the popularity of fundamentalist Islam in the region, an outcome by no means likely in the absence of our troops and bombs. Of course the Arabs would probably have called themselves Muslims in any case; but Islam, like Christianity, can be peaceable as well as fanatic. Indeed, because religions have no objective truth, they can become anything at all. Unfortunately we seem to be determined to reawaken what are precisely the most unpleasant elements of the Muslim tradition and to make skepticism or secularism into cultural treason.

These things work both ways. Creating a huge and permanent enemy in the Middle East has certain advantages from a rightist perspective because a hostile Islamic world automatically provides America with a unifying other that has been lacking since the Reds wimped out on us. Many Neocons accept the thesis of Carl Schmitt that real politics absolutely requires an enemy. If you really want to have a nation that amounts to more than a contemptible mutual aid society, you simply must pick a fight with someone. Unfortunately, the obvious bogyman, China, is already too formidable to challenge. In this respect, the terrorists are a godsend. True, they had nothing at all to do with the fascist regime in Iraq; but they can be made to have something to do with Iraq retroactively. And the prospect that conflict in the region will be interminable is actually a selling point since what is needed is a reliable, permanent foe to discipline the Americans and justify an authoritarian, one-party state at home.

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