In the 16th and 17th centuries, the West was convulsed by religious wars that, in the words of historian Paul Johnson, "were without redeeming features and were destructive of the Christian faith itself, as well as human life and material civilization." In this period, "sensible and civilized men had to shout to make their voices heard above the winds of violence, cruelty and superstition."
Commentators compete to find the most apt date of comparison for the world of today. Is it 1914 or 1939, the cusp of an international conflagration? Or is it 1973, the brink of a calamitous American defeat in a regional war? In the Middle East, it often seems to be 1618, the beginning of the Thirty Years' War that laid waste to Germany in a senseless sectarian war.
No historical analogy is perfect, and the Middle East has its oasis of relative calm and good government. But the accent is on feral violence: Hamas and Fatah throwing one another from buildings in Gaza; Sunni and Shia turning one another's mosques to rubble in Iraq; Syria attempting to bring down the government of Lebanon assassinated politician by assassinated politician; pregnant Palestinian mothers undertaking suicide-bombing missions against Israel.
There is plenty of power politics here -- with Iran behind much of the mayhem -- and distinct causes for each conflict, but there is also an underlying civilizational sickness. Resenting the way the West eclipsed the Muslim world centuries ago, ashamed by Israel's overwhelming military strength and hating America as the apex of Western might, the Middle East resorts to various radicalisms as a salve to these historic humiliations. They are a twisted appeal to wounded pride and a call to renewed greatness through the rejection of modernity.
Historian Theodore Von Laue argued that the ascendance of the West in the 20th century subjected non-Westerners to "the psychological misery of knowingly belonging to a 'backward' society." Many non-Western countries adapted, reconciling modernity to their particular cultural contexts. But the Middle East tended to import the failed Western ideologies of socialism and fascism, and watched itself fall further back. As writer Ralph Peters explains, in such circumstances, "people look for somebody to blame, and they default to blood and belief, ethnicity and religion -- fundamentalist religion."
Which brings only more ruin. It has been seven years since Yasser Arafat was offered a Palestinian state and rejected it in favor of an impossible-to-win war against Israel that brought the rise of hard-liner Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Israel. Sharon adopted the principle of giving the Palestinians what they wanted -- good and hard. He left Gaza, leaving the Palestinians who had blamed the occupation for their failings to stew in their own toxic politics and, last week, to rip asunder any hope of a Palestinian state.
The best argument against the Iraq War is that our staying there is like being in the middle of Gaza, refereeing fanatical factions. The Iraq War looks, at this juncture, like a last-ditch effort to keep the Arabs from rejecting what Fouad Ajami calls "the foreigner's gift," the chance for a fresh start brought with the toppling of Saddam Hussein by force of American arms.
It is tempting to wash our hands of the entire region, but unrealistic. The poison of the Middle East is exportable, through al-Qaida terrorists and, one day soon, perhaps through nuclear-tipped Iranian missiles. We have to work with those relatively decent leaders -- Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, Fouad Siniora in Lebanon, Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq -- who are attempting to hold back the tide of madness and blood. The region needn't tip inevitably into catastrophe, even if that's where it seems determined to send itself.
Samuel Johnson famously said that nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a hanging. Is that true of a self-hanging? If it isn't, decent voices in the Middle East might soon, like Henry James on the outbreak of World War I, have cause to lament "the funeral spell of our murdered civilization."