Soon it is going to be the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the television stations seem to be gearing up for programmes that will take us back to that terrible event. I am working on an article for the print edition of the paper about the day of the attacks, and in the course of my researches, and partly out of curiosity, I reminded myself of what I thought at the time. The following paragraphs are what I wrote for the Daily Telegraph, and originally appeared on 10th November 2011, part of a long series of reflections on the events of 9/11.
According to many Muslims, the Christian West is decadent, perhaps irredeemably so. Could they be right? Islam has a purity and energy that Christianity seems to have lost. Even if we win the war in Afghanistan, will we have lost another war – the war of ideas?
God is great; there is no God but God, and Mohammed is His prophet … These words are the essence of Islam. One can say nothing about God except that He is God; His greatness cannot be put into words.
This transcendental quality is the reason for Islam’s extraordinary success: it is austere and simple, religion in its purest form. By contrast, Christianity seems cluttered and its meaning obscure, its once powerful symbols wrapped up in ritual and hidden away. The starkness and terror of the Cross have been forgotten.
The influential Rome daily, La Repubblica, reports that in Italy there are some 70,000 converts to Islam. This is an astonishing statistic. Since September 11, there has been an increase in interest in Islam, a boost in sales of books on Islam. Why is this happening?
Undoubtedly, the attacks on America cast a shadow over the Islamic world, but perhaps there is, after all, no such thing as bad publicity. We know that Osama bin Laden is not the true face of Islam; we have been told so repeatedly. And yet there is something in him that gives us pause. Here is a man with a cause for which educated people are ready to die.
There is something, too, about the persona of bin Laden, so austere, so dedicated, so controlled: the tone in his videos is not fanatical but logical, his face tranquil, his self-belief invincible. His biblical costume and his retreat to his mountain fastness point to a world beyond our own, a different set of priorities. All of which forces us to confront an uncomfortable question. What do we really believe in?
It is difficult to say. While Islam’s proclamation is simplicity itself, the Christian message is obscured by theology impenetrable to most people.
Sadly, there are elements of decadence in Christian culture, and particularly in Roman Catholicism. In 2001, the Church is still operating baroque comfort stations that made sense in 1601, but have little relevance now.
The Vatican Council attempted a stripping of the altars, and a discovery of the unadorned and frightening mystery that lies at the heart of the faith, but this has not been entirely successful: while we know that the old order has passed away, we haven’t embraced the new. Latin has gone, only to be replaced by Vatican-speak and social-worker platitudes.
Yet, underneath it all, a powerful message is struggling to get out. The Christian proclamation is not that God is great (though He is), but rather that God is good and that His Law is love. This sense of goodness is the foundation of all we hold dear; even atheists can assent to it.
The problem is that Christians suffer from a fatal lack of confidence, and that this is a sign of a wider malaise. Although we have values, we find them difficult to articulate. While George Bush can say: “May God continue to bless America” (ironically, al-Qa’eda has chosen as its target the most religious and least decadent country in the West), hardly any British politician could do so without risking ridicule.
In other words, we in sophisticated, cosmopolitan Europe find it difficult to talk in plain terms about right and wrong; we are embarrassed to do so. And that will make it difficult to see the present conflict through to a conclusion. This war, like every war, cannot be fought just with bombs and bullets. We have plenty of those – it is ideas and firm beliefs that we lack.
It is rather odd being confronted with one’s thoughts from 10 years back, but there is nothing in what I said then that strikes me as quite wrong now. We have not won the war in Afghanistan, and the military solutions there and in Iraq merely show that military solutions on their own are not enough.
As for the self-confidence of Christians, I am now inclined to be more optimistic. We live in the age of Benedict XVI, and I think that under his leadership, firm but gentle, we are regaining our footing, though that will be a slow process. But we are on the right path. In short, I don’t think we are decadent, and I think that there is much worth defending in our culture, though it would be good if our political leaders had even a little bit of the Pope’s courage and firmness of purpose.
Incidentally, this article was copied by quite a few papers round the world, and translated into Turkish. I wonder what on earth a Muslim audience made of it.