Christian and Muslim

JONATHAN POWER

January 18, 1991|By JONATHAN POWER

LUND, SWEDEN. — I don't know about you, but after escaping the World War II and Cold War I, I don't want to bequeath to my children the consequences of a failed and destructive relationship between the Christian West and Islam.

Murderous enmity has burned on and off since the time of the Crusades; now it is given new life by, on the one hand, the post-modernist reaction in much of the Islamic world at a time when windfall oil billions enable it to buy sophisticated arms and by, on the other, the apparent redirection of free-floating popular Western hostility from communism redirected toward a new hate object in Islamic societies.

The conflict with Saddam Hussein is only one manifestation of a battle that takes a hundred forms, from Islamic-Christian rivalry over the constitution of Nigeria to the war in Afghanistan to the ''Satanic Verses'' -- not to mention the West's role in the creation of Israel.

Yet these ''people of the Book'' have more in common than divides them. Compare their spiritual monotheism with the multi-god Hindu culture or the almost godless Confucian culture of China and Japan.

The Christian world has conquered the Islamic world twice, first during the 11th-century Crusades and again during the expansion of the European empires in the 19th and 20th centuries. For Islam's part, in the 7th and 8th centuries Arabs swept into Spain and much of France. Muslims occupied most of European Russia until 600 years ago, and the Turkish armies sliced right through eastern Europe up to the gates of Vienna a short 300 years ago.

There is no question today of one vanquishing the other as in previous times. The West no longer allows itself this privilege and the Muslim world, for all its oil, is militarily and economically too weak and, unless Saddam Hussein pulls off his unlikely bid for leadership of the Arab world, too divided.

Nevertheless, continuous antagonism and confrontation -- the Iranian hostage crisis, the various nose-to-noses with Libya, the early days of the OPEC cartel, the disintegration of Lebanon and now the present conflict -- all cause immense political disequilibrium and economic and social chaos. (And this list omits the Western alliance with Israel with all its problems.)

With the demise of the superpower rivalry that played on the nerve ends of this ancient schism, it should now be possible to find a better way. After all, unlike the great division of the Cold War, there is no great dispute between the two theo- logies over the role of the market place.

The two worlds would come even closer if the Muslim one moved faster toward democracy and if there were, as in the Christian world, a sharper separation of church and state. Democracies do not, says history so far, go to war with each other. And the separation of the clergy from direct political power gives society more flexibility in dealing with social and political change.

These were late developments in Western societies. Moreover, one can discern in practice a cleavage between religious and temporal power in many Islamic societies and a rising hunger for democracy. It is unlikely that a freed Kuwait -- a country that allowed a relatively open press before the Iraqi take-over -- will remain undemocratic for long. Certainly, the recent economic and educational advances of the Arab world has increased the appetite for political participation.

Western societies could make their contribution by acknowledging more openly their own historical propensity toward violence.

There tends to be a lot of gobbledygook talked in the West about how the Koran has no counterpart to the Christian admonition to ''Love thy neighbor as thyself.'' Yet 600 years ago when Christianity was roughly as old as Islam is today Europe was a violent and authoritarian place. In living memory, Hitler came to power, and in a country that in a number of important aspects -- as the home of the Reformation and much sacred music -- was the cradle of much contemporary Christian culture.

Islamic tradition has much to give to post-Christian societies that have lost reverence for the source of creation and have subjugated too many principles to the quest for material satisfaction. Islamic societies may have suffered 200 years of political regression, compared with Western society. But clearly Islam is beginning to find its feet again. The West, rather than fearing and mistrusting this, should find ways to embrace it.

Both sides can begin by defeating Saddam Hussein, whose megalomania serves neither's interest. Then must come an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Long overdue is to give a Muslim nation, probably Egypt, a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Beyond that, but made much easier if the first three are accomplished quickly, is the complex long-term task of learning to live together as equals. After all, arrogance in both cultures is an abiding sin.

Jonathan Power writes a column on world affairs.

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