An interesting bit of symmetry has come into focus regarding the conflict in the Middle East. I have written before about the power of true belief – call it radicalism, fanaticism, whatever. You can find it on this blog – the post dated Dec. 27, 2014, “Fools, Holy and Otherwise”. The point was that there is something about a cause – and the less “realistic” the better – that attracts people, especially young people, who are looking for something worth fighting for. And when true believers go up against the Establishment – which is characterized by materialism, cynicism, and “realpolitik”, and dominated by old, bald white guys (let's admit it), they tend, other things being equal, to win, simply because their fervor serves as a force multiplier – i.e. their pure energy can overcome those who are primarily seeking political, military, or material gain -- or to at least hold on to their power base.
We can see this down through history – smaller forces defeating (at least for a time, and sometimes permanently) larger forces, and it's always based on an idea... an inspiration. And I'm not claiming that the cause is always just; that's not the point. It's more about the power of ideas, right or wrong... and the relative impotence of tired, worn-out regimes. Many examples come to mind, such as the Jewish rebellion against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire (you can cross-reference this with “Irony” if you like)... the Moslem conquests of the early days... the Crusades... the American Revolution... the Civil War... the Bolsheviks... the Nazis... the Viet Cong... and now ISIS. In all cases, the cause was deemed worthy, and worth fighting for, even unto death, to say nothing of destruction of the old order. “Counting the cost” was not on the agenda, in other words. Even the death of innocents was, in most cases, considered to be part of the price that must be paid (can you say “collateral damage”?). One can even claim that revolution per se – regardless of the time and place – is characterized, at least at the outset, by this mind set. It is, in other words, a part of history, and conflicts that don't possess this trait (World War I comes to mind) eventually come to be seen as unfortunate, unnecessary, and truly wasteful.
People of our time commenting on history will often say something like, “Thank goodness we aren't fighting religious wars any longer.” But I say that religious wars are the only ones worth fighting! Or, substitute “wars of ideas” and you pretty much have it covered. And is there any doubt that what we are fighting right now in the Middle East is a religious war? And don't bother to say that ISIS doesn't represent “real” Islam; their beliefs are as real to them as the beliefs of any other revolutionists or crusaders were to them.
A recent AP news story described ISIS as having “apocalyptic appeal”. The concept of apocalypse is all about the ultimate destiny of the world, and of mankind. It's about a process – but that process has a goal, which is setting the world right, either in anticipation of the final judgment (the religious version) or of achieving heaven on earth – a Utopia to last a thousand years (recall, if you will, the Nazis' vision of the “Thousand Year Reich”). For a goal like that, is any sacrifice too great? It never seems to be. And this, among many other factors, is why we find ourselves baffled when it comes to fighting ISIS – and why remnants of the Roman Empire were so helpless in the face of Islam... and why the British were so stunned by the American Revolution... and so on.
And yet we have, on “our” side, something of the sort as well – a real, home-grown hotbed of fanaticism that is as dedicated to its cause as the Islamists are to theirs. They're called Christian Zionists – and they overlap to a significant extent with the Neocons, and, I daresay, with the Tea Party... and also serve to energize the campaigns of nearly all of the Republican presidential candidates. Their theme, as we are, hopefully, all aware of by now, is that Israel is the key to “salvation history” and must be supported, and protected, at all costs – even unto the destruction of our own economy and our political isolation on the world stage.
This phenomenon has been extensively documented in a number of books, and I suggest, for starters, one entitled “Allies for Armageddon: The Rise of Christian Zionism” by Victoria Clark. From a summary of the book (on Amazon):
Guided by a literal reading of the prophetic sections of the Bible, Christian Zionists are convinced that the world is hurtling toward a final Battle of Armageddon. They believe that war in the Middle East is God’s will for the region. In this timely book, Victoria Clark first explores the 400-year history of this powerful political ideology, laying to rest the idea that Christian Zionism is a passing craze or the province of a lunatic fringe. Then Clark surveys the contemporary Christian Zionist scene in Israel and in the United States, where the influence of the religious fundamentalists has never been greater.
Clark engages with Christian Zionism directly, interviewing leaders, attending events, and traveling with Christian Zionists in the Holy Land. She also investigates the Christian Zionist presence in Israel. She finds that the view through the Christian Zionist lens is dangerously simple: (the) War on Terror is a mythic battle between good and evil, and Syria and Iran represent the powers of darkness. Such views are far from rare—an estimated fifteen to twenty million Americans share them. Almost one in three Americans believes Israel was given to the Jews by God as a prelude to the Battle of Armageddon and Jesus’ Second Coming. Clark concludes with an assessment of Christian Zionists’ impact on American foreign policy in the Middle East and on America’s relationships with European allies since the attacks of 9/11.
Now – the question we should be asking is this: If all of this is true (and I don't doubt that it is), are we to accept it as a perfectly natural historical development – inevitable, if you will, given that we as a nation identify our own founding as based on ideas of, if not explicitly religious, then at the very least a Utopian sort? Or to put it another way, did our founding as a secular society highly informed by Protestant or “Enlightenment” ideas inevitably lead us to this pass? The book provides convincing evidence that this is the case. The irony, of course, is that even though this nation was founded on, basically, humanistic and materialistic principles, theology caught up with it – starting with the second through the fourth of the “Great Awakenings”. (The First Great Awakening predated the Revolution, but certainly laid the conceptual groundwork for those to follow.)
And so, if this is all perfectly natural, and inevitable, does that make it OK? Are we to, ultimately, throw ourselves on Israel's funeral pyre, assuming that all of this comes to naught? Or perhaps it won't; perhaps there will, ultimately, be a victory that all can revel in and that will make all of our sacrifices seem worthwhile. We seem to be standing on a cusp of history – a time of great testing – where a conflict of ideas will determine the future for many generations – nay, centuries or even millennia – to come. If we are satisfied with this, and willing to pay any price, then by all means let us “let loose the dogs of war”. We already have an enemy that is not only willing, but strangely able, as evidenced by recent events. It may, in fact, be too late to back down – as it has been so many times before. All I'm suggesting is that we become, and remain, conscious of all that is entailed here; it is truly a “big f------ deal”, in the immortal words of Joe Biden. If we think of it as being anything less, and are not prepared for all of the possible consequences, then we are sadly mistaken. We have achieved that state of “fearful symmetry” -- the difference being that the other side is fully aware of it, whereas we persist in pretending otherwise.