In 1427, a ship captain sailing for his Portuguese Prince, Henry the Navigator, discovered the Azores Islands. If the question of the significance of this event had been posed, at the time, to Sultan Murad Khan (the leader of the Ottoman Empire), or to Itzcoatl and Nezahualcoyotl (the co-leaders of the Aztecs) or to Rao Kanha (one of the princes of Jodhpur in India), it is unlikely that any of them would have responded that it is an early indication of a historic explosion of cultural energy in Europe that will lead to European exploration and conquest of most of the known world, and to a renaissance of European thought that will give rise to scientific, industrial and scholarly dominance of the planet by European culture for at least half a millennium.
Today, no European or American leaders with whom I am familiar have tied the Sept. 11, 2001 attack, the various Islamist bombing attacks around the world, the push for Sharia law in the West and the current disturbances in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Syria and Bahrain together as symptoms of one larger phenomenon.
The Islamist attacks in the West and elsewhere are characterized as the actions of a politically radicalized group of Muslims driven by poverty, political suppression and cultural deprivation -- who represent a tiny fraction of Islam.
The current disturbances in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, etc., are separately explained -- by many conservatives and liberals as evidence of a sudden Muslim thirst for democracy -- driven by poverty, political suppression and cultural deprivation.
Well, maybe. But I suspect that such interpretations trivialize the magnitude and causes of these events. After all, those sadly familiar factors of poverty, political suppression and cultural deprivation have existed in most Muslim lands for many centuries. Why are they suddenly triggers to mass action?
Six years ago, in my book "The West's Last Chance" (page 23), I theorized that "...the mortal threat we face comes not merely from Osama bin Laden and a few thousand terrorists. Rather, we are confronted with the Islamic world -- a fifth of mankind -- in turmoil, and insurgent as it has not been in at least five hundred years, if not fifteen hundred years. The magnitude of this cultural upheaval cannot yet be measured..."
"Today we face a force of human passion that may well match a similar expansion that burst out of Renaissance Christian Europe and came to be known in the West as the Age of Discovery -- but was known everywhere else as the age of conquest, imperialism and colonialism. And let it be noted, the quality of the human stock that surged out of fifteenth century Europe was in no way superior to that which today peoples the Islamic world."
Of course, just as the advance of European civilization to its many triumphs was neither inevitable nor perhaps even probable (certainly not predicted or understood in its earlier stages), so, too, the current explosion of energy among the Islamic peoples may peter out, be directed down blind alleys or meet more powerful resistance than met the European expansion.
But as our government -- and its Republican critics -- flounders around trying to respond to and explain each new current Islamic "event," we should all be vastly more modest in our confidence that we really understand what forces are unfolding.
At such a moment of major historic discontinuity, it is dangerous to assume that the trends and conceptions of world events with which we have been living (and thriving) for generations still apply.
If we are facing an emerging flood of civilizational energy from Islam, how might we think about a response? When a literal flood comes, people either run from it, build walls to resist it or try to channel and divert it. It would be unusual for the first thought to be to jump into the arriving flood.
After Sept. 11, with what we thought we knew then, our government reasonably tried the second method -- resist it: both at home and abroad. Certainly, we should persist with that strategy regarding the direct threat from the terrorists.
But as at least some of us think we see these larger forces emerging, it would make sense to, where feasible, get out of its way. Now might be a very good time not to get further engaged in the Middle East -- which may well see decades of violence as this Islamic energy works its way through its peoples and nations.
Of course, the feasibility of removing ourselves from the Middle East is limited by our reliance on Middle East oil. We must surely, if it comes to it, defend the Saudi and other gulf oil fields, the Bahrain pipelines and the Suez Canal. But intervention should be limited only to our most vital national security requirements.
Beyond that, the first policy imperative that should come from these events is for a Manhattan Project sense of urgency to massively and quickly increase our domestic (and other politically safe) oil production, while the humans for which our government should provide humanitarian relief and nation-building services should be limited to American humans.