LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles.
"Good!'' I said when someone told me that the army had taken over in Algeria rather than let an elected fundamentalist Muslim government take office. On second thought I am ashamed of that reaction -- a dangerous and racist reaction.
You either believe in democracy or you don't, I thought after a few moments of reflection. I dislike religious government, particularly this kind, but who runs Algeria is the business of Algerians.
I have no sure sense of what will now happen for better or for worse in Algeria. Perhaps the army and the ''moderates'' the soldiers intend to put into office by force will turn the country into a paradise, and the fundamentalists of the Islamic Front will happily go back to harems and prayer in the desert. Or, more likely, the army will buy time for the rich and the Western-educated middle class, such as it is today in Algeria, to get as much money as they can out of the country before the fundamentalists rise again to take their revenge for being denied the just fruits of their legitimate political triumph.
Whatever happens next, the Algerian coup d'etat will be seen, I think, as a major event of our time -- far more important, for instance, than the Gulf War. Operation Desert Storm proved only that the Americans and their Western (or Christian) allies can get real crazy, real quick, and kill a lot of people if they don't get their way. But that is temporal victory, and the same people, Arabs, will be sitting on the same sand and oil a hundred or a thousand years from now.
Western reaction to the Algerian coup -- ''We are concerned,'' the State Department whispered uncomfortably -- shows that we are hypocrites of a high order who will do almost anything to deny Muslim masses the rights we consider so precious for ourselves and people who look like us.
More than that, our reaction, or lack of reaction, demonstrates that George Bush's Kuwait-driven version of a new world order lasted exactly one year. What began in Algeria is New World Order II, which may be a throwback to one of the oldest of world orders, the time when religion was more powerful than nationalism -- a condition dramatized by the Crusades and inquisitions.
It will be a terrible time if that happens, at least for us. Many Muslims -- mullahs in Iran, mujahideen in Afghanistan, princes in Saudi Arabia, and possibly the dis-elected parliamentarians of Algeria -- would welcome a reversion to stricter and simpler times when they were not overwhelmed by the technology and contempt of the Christian tribes and nations.
That may be coming. Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, and Muslims too, are already fighting over what used to be Yugoslavia, and they may soon be doing the same thing in what used to be the Soviet Union. Christians and Muslims are fighting in Nigeria. Hindus and Muslims are fighting in India and Sri Lanka. Muslims and Jews continue centuries of civil war over the Middle East. Protestants and Catholics fight over Northern Ireland.
New World Order II is only a scenario now, a fragment of imagination, but it could divide the world, like ancient Gaul, into three parts: (1) the rich Christian West, including Jews, and including part of the old Soviet Union; (2) a rich Confucian East (described in the current issue of New Perspectives Quarterly), stressing community values and effort rather than the individual thrust of Western liberalism; (3) a poor world of Islam, preferring to look back, ready to strike at modernism rather than be part of it.
Our reaction to the events in Algeria -- basically my reaction on a grand scale -- indicates that the West considers democracy and other facets of modernism as just too good to be wasted on Muslims. We are ready to give up on Islam, pushing the world toward that kind of division, a New World Order II, which actually already has a name: It was called the Middle Ages.