051015 - Islam Plus Democracy: The Lewis Doctrine Makes Inroads at the Vatican
|Islam Plus Democracy: The Lewis Doctrine Makes Inroads at the Vatican
After the United States, and with great caution, the Holy See is also embracing the thesis of Islam scholar Bernard Lewis: combat terrorism with the weapon of democracy. The shift faces a test in Iraq
by Sandro Magister
ROMA – Welcoming in St. Peter’s Square, on April 29, a retinue including the relatives of the Italian hostages in Iraq, John Paul II both prayed and asked for prayers. But he also thanked “those working to reestablish in Iraq a climate of reconciliation and dialogue in view of the restoration of the country’s full sovereignty and independence, in conditions of security for the whole population.”
These brief words synthesize the Vatican’s current political position on the Gulf: no flight or retreat, but rather support for the allied military forces that bring security to the people and help to construct a free and permanently “reconciled,” democratic Iraq.
The word “democracy” is used sparingly by Vatican authorities in regard to Iraq and to Muslim countries in general. There are still those who maintain that the pretext of exporting democracy to these countries is “particularly offensive to the Islamic community” (see “La Civiltà Cattolica” of last February 2). But the prevailing opinion within the secretariat of state is one of support for the development of democracy in Iraq and the Middle East – even, when necessary, with the use of armed forces on “missions of peace.”
If this is so, we are witnessing a shift in the geopolitics of the Vatican, following the recent shift in U.S. geopolitics.
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For the half century ending on September 11, 2001, the “Kennan doctrine” dominated in the United States. It was so named following a famous article by George F. Kennan in “Foreign Affairs” in 1947. The key word in this doctrine was “containment.” Its fundamental objective was that of containing the Soviet superpower within the boundaries established at Yalta.
In terms of the Muslim countries, the Kennan doctrine encouraged alliances even with the most fiercely authoritarian governments, as long as they were reliably lined up on the anti-Russian side.
The Holy See adapted itself diligently to this doctrine. Its pressing interest, in communist-dominated countries as in Muslim countries, was that of protecting the minimal conditions of life for the local Christian communities, but without ever encouraging the overthrow of the respective regimes.
The detachment from a rigid application of the Kennan doctrine came, in the United States, with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and, in the Vatican, with the pontificate of John Paul II. Their convergent activity hastened the collapse of the Soviet empire.
But on the Muslim side, things continued as before. And the Church paid the price. During the 1980’s and ‘90’s, for example, the Church lost what had been the last “Christian kingdom” in the East, Lebanon. Abandoned by the European powers, and by France first of all, the Christian militias succumbed to the Muslim forces. Lebanon fell under the control of its neighbor Syria: a development sanctioned in 1994 by inter-Arab accords brokered by the current UN deputy for Iraq, the Algerian Sunni Lakhdar Brahimi.
In the summer of 1989, John Paul II spoke out harshly against Syria. He called it “Cain,” accused it of genocide, and declared himself prepared to go personally to Lebanon, under the bombs. No one listened to him.
In 1994, after the Syrian “peace” was sealed, the pope planned a visit to Lebanon. But when everything was ready, the bombing of a Christian church killed 11 and wounded 55. The visit was cancelled.
But in the meantime, Vatican diplomacy did not separate itself from the policy of maintaining good relations with Arabic dictators, especially the secular and nationalist ones. In the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, this policy obtained conditions of relative privilege for the Chaldean Christians.
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Then came September 11, 2001. And this was a turning point for the United States, in its relations with the Muslim world.
The Lewis doctrine was substituted for the Kennan doctrine.
Bernard Lewis (see photo), born in London in 1916, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Princeton University, is the most famous scholar of Islam in the world. Eight days after the attack on the Twin Towers, he unveiled his doctrine to the U.S. Defense Policy Boards and suggest that Iraq be attacked. Next he met and convinced vice-president Dick Cheney and Bush’s national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice.
Lewis’ thesis is that what the West must promote in Muslim countries is not stability at all costs – with the usual tyrants – but democracy, and with the use of force, if necessary.
This is, in fact, the only way – in his opinion – to wrench the Muslim world free from the humiliation toward itself and the hatred toward the Christian West that it has accumulated, beginning with the failed conquest of Vienna in 1683, and then with the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire, the failure of Arab nationalism, and its present backwardness.
And this is also the only way – again, in his opinion – to defeat Islamist terrorism.
In a 1990 book on “Modern Jihad and the Roots of Muslim Rage,” Lewis anticipated the thesis of Samuel Huntington, defining the clash between Islam and the West in terms of a clash of cultures. His most recent book, published in 2003, develops the same thesis. Its title is “The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror.”
Lewis does not at all maintain that Muslim culture and religion are incompatible with democracy. He holds as false the idea – which is widely shared in the West – according to which only secularized ruling classes could govern a Muslim country democratically. He trusts completely that democracy can find a home in the Islam of the mosques, and plant its roots within the Koranic faith itself.
His test case is Turkey, where he has long been an influential consultant. In Turkey, the secularism of Kemal Ataturk and his followers has not in the least uprooted the religious sentiment of the population. On the contrary, the current ruling party, the AKP of Tayyip Erdogan, had its beginning in the mosques. And it links together political Islam, economic liberalism, and a pro-West and pro-Israel foreign policy.
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And the Vatican? It certainly rejects the part of the Lewis doctrine that would have recourse to military force as a lever for the exportation of democracy.
But the fact that the promotion of democracy in Muslim countries is an increasingly desirable objective among the leaders of the Holy See is the biggest news item in recent months.
The Holy See clearly proposes “soft power” as a means for propagating democracy in these countries: a peaceful diffusion of democracy through the winning of consensus in favor of laws and regulations for coexistence that are shown as good and attractive in themselves. In this, the Church draws upon its two thousand years of experience as bearer of the Gospel.
But at the same time, it does not exclude the possibility that military forces could intervene as “missionaries of peace” when necessary. Present-day Iraq is one of these cases of necessity, in the judgment of Vatican leaders.
And the shift now taking place is not a slight one. It implies as well a revision of the channels of intercultural and interreligious dialogue already established between the Church and the Muslim world. This shift requires giving much more attention – and support – to an Islam different from the one habitually approached: the Islam of non-theocratic currents of thought, the “quietist” Islam of the Shiite grand ayatollah Sistani, the modernist Ismaili Islam of Karim Aga Khan; in Europe, to thinkers like the Algerian Khaled Fouad Allam or the Syrian Bassam Tibi, and, in Arab and Persian countries, to the Islam of the underground and of the samizdat, as original and fertile as it is persecuted, in part due those who simply leave it alone.
Three useful books:
Bernard Lewis, “The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror,” 2003.
Khaled Fouad Allam, “L’islam globale”, Rizzoli, Milano, 2002, pp. 210, euro 16,00.
Bassam Tibi, “Euro-Islam. L’integrazione mancata”, Marsilio, Venezia, 2003, pp. 188, euro 9,90.