TCS Daily


Dune and Gloom in Iraq?

By James Pinkerton - February 19, 2003 12:00 AM

Call it the Dune Scenario. It's a vision of the future that overlaps, a bit, with the sandy sci-fi saga of Frank Herbert. That is, just as Herbert's planet Arrakis was a sort of Islamicized world -- the protagonist is called Muad'Dib -- so this Earth, too, could become Islamicized. Sound ridiculous? After all, President Bush, confident in his Judeo-Christian values, is poised to "liberate" Iraq, bringing, he hopes, the blessings of liberal democracy to Baghdad -- and perhaps elsewhere in the Arab world. So isn't this earth likely to become less Dune-like, not more?

Maybe, but consider the disturbing prophecy of Camille Paglia, who wonders if we face a Dune fate. Paglia is best known for her lesbian-libertarian critiques of political correctness, but she is much more than a provocateur. Her first book, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, published in 1990, is not only profound, but profoundly conservative. How so? Paglia's argument is based on a deep reading of history, and historical understanding, of course, is the meat on any conservative's table. In a nutshell, her big idea is that sexual archetypes -- or, as she called them, personae -- recur in history because they are hard-wired into human nature and culture. So men and women, in their different ways, are perpetually destined to recreate ancient forms -- not only sexual, but also political, and theological. Paglia dwells on the continuity, for example, between the polytheism of ancient pagans and the proliferation of saints in the Roman Catholic Church.

Some would call that that an outrageous comparison. Welcome to Paglia-land. And as long as you're here, why not sit still for her projection about the future of America and the West? Interviewed by Salon.com on Feb. 7, Paglia said, "In countries like Turkey that have reluctantly agreed to let U.S. forces use their territory as a staging ground ... there's a sharp disconnect between these government decisions and what the mass of people think and feel. And we don't need that -- a situation where moderate governments are overthrown by a rising tide of Islamic radicalism." OK, nothing so spectacular there; that's a familiar dovish critique of present Bush policy.

But then she went further: "Most professional people in the West do not understand the power of Islamic fundamentalism. Westerners dismissed Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini -- 'Oh, how medieval; our modern culture will triumph over that!' But guess what: Ever since Khomeini, Islamic fundamentalism has been spreading and spreading right to our front door." And then she continued on the topic of Islam, hitting the reader with her punch line of a provocative point:

It's similar to early Christianity. Christianity began as a religion of the poor and dispossessed -- farmers, fishermen, Bedouin shepherds. There's a great lure to that kind of simplicity and rigor - the discipline, the call to action. There's a kind of rapturous idealism to it. No one thought in the First Century after Christ that this slave religion would triumph over the urbane sophisticates of the ancient Roman world. Taking the long view, I think Islamic radicalism is the true threat, not Saddam Hussein's arsenal. At the worst, Saddam's biological or chemical weapons could take out a neighborhood or send a drifting poison cloud through a city. But what I'm talking about is a movement so massive it could bring down the West -- the entire civilization of the West. No one thought that imperial Egypt or Rome would fall -- but they did.

Nobody can look ahead and see the future, but Paglia has looked into the past and seen a precedent. She has remembered another time when a backward underclass, possessed of a powerful vision -- a vision of morality and asceticism in this world, as well as salvation in the next -- overturned an entire empire in the course of a few centuries.

Is it preposterous to analogize ancient Christians and contemporary Muslims? Maybe. But of course, it was St. Paul, in First Corinthians, who proclaimed, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent."

Interestingly, Paglia's foretelling fits in with the thesis advanced by Pat Buchanan in his 2002 best-seller, The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization. Buchanan's argument is simple: People in a given culture can be rich and happy, but if they don't have children, then their culture won't survive. One example is Italy. Today, the country contains some 57 million souls; its prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is a staunch American ally in the war against Islamic terror. But the Buchananesque proposition is that Italy could be triumphant, alongside United States, in that battle and still lose the war against Islam.

How? Because the Italian birthrate is about half of the needed demographic replacement rate; in 50 years, the country's population will be down to 41 million graying citizens. And in another 50 years, the Italian census will have shrunk to 20 million. Will the country be left empty? Probably not. Most likely, if those downward trends continue, the vacuum will be filled by folks from somewhere. But from where? Since the rest of Europe is depopulating, too, it's likely that the next population influx into Italy will come from across the Mediterranean. And we all know who lives on the other side of that inland sea. Once again, there's a precedent: an earlier Muslim surge across the Med gave them control of Sicily from 827 to 1091 CE. Buchanan would say that the last laugh belongs to the one who is alive to laugh; the dead and the never-born don't have a voice.

Now let's put the Buchanan and Paglia arguments together.

For his part, Buchanan says that the European-spawned West is dying, as its native-stock populations fade away and are replaced by Arabs, Africans, and, in the United States, Latin Americans and Asians. Is he wrong? Many reviewers have called him "racist" or something close, but none have knocked a hole in his numbers, which mostly come from the U.S. government and the United Nations. One needn't necessarily agree with the rest of Buchanan's jeremiad -- that this population shrinkage is caused by a spiritual "sickness" -- to accept the fact that the demographic data are what they are. Common sense says that if yuppies have no children -- or, in the famous description of onetime mother Hillary Rodham in 1980, elect to have "one perfect child" -- then there might not be a lot of yuppies in the future. By contrast, Osama Bin Laden was the 17th son of the 51 children of Muhammad Bin Laden.

And some countries, already on the edge, have had to adjust their strategic thinking accordingly. In Israel, for example, recognition of the ticking "demographic bomb" has hit home, and hit hard. Israelis have noticed that if present trends continue, with Arab birthrates double that of Jews, then within a decade or two, the Arab population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea will exceed the Arab population. This realization has accelerated Israeli efforts to find a mechanism to achieve a final "disengagement" between themselves and the Palestinians -- before they are engulfed.

But can it really be the case that Muslims -- who, after all, account for just a fifth of the world's population -- can take over the world, no matter how prolific they are? From our perspective, it's hard to see how it could happen. That's what makes Paglia's analogy so daring -- and perhaps dead wrong.

But maybe death is part of what gives her scenario its evocative power, as it looms on the horizon of our consciousness like an angry fist. One feature that contemporary Islam shares with ancient Christianity is noteworthy: an appetite for martyrdom. Self-sacrifice is, after all, a proven method for making a political, as well as spiritual, impression. For long periods, the Romans killed every Christian they could find -- most of the popes for the first two centuries of the Church died as martyrs -- and yet more Christians appeared year after year.

And so, influenced by Paglia, as one reads Feb. 10th's Washington Post, describing a January Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip that left 13 Palestinians dead and another 62 injured, one wonders whether some epic drama of sacrifice and redemption is yet again unwinding. A hint of admiration for the collective spirit of Palestinians can be detected in the account of reporter Molly Moore: "Loudspeakers blared appeals from the minarets of mosques across the city: 'Join the struggle! Join the struggle! God is Great! Come help the injured! Help the injured!'" It's entirely possible, of course, that a great many more martyrs will be made in the tumultuous times to come. And how will they be remembered? As losers because they died for no reason? Or as winners because they died for a greater goal? Anyone judging Christian martyrs would have had one answer a century after the Crucifixion and another answer two centuries after that.

Osama Bin Laden spoke to the would-be martyrs, apparently, on Tuesday. If his voice is heard after Saddam's is silenced, what will the Islamic faithful, just back from their Hajj, think then? Will they lay down their arms or their hatreds because a secular Muslim has been defeated, or will they go off on their own Hejirah, determined to refine their faith, to return someday, to reclaim what was lost?

If Buchanan is correct and the West is fading away, then obviously something is wrong with the West, all its technology and luxury notwithstanding. But long before the last European shrivels up and dies, the continent will have gone through a profound spiritual and moral crisis, as it confronts the barrenness of its own cultural womb. What will fill that void? For his part, Buchanan hopes that the demographic crisis will inspire Europeans and Americans to return to the Holy Mother Church -- and no birth control or abortion. Paglia, sensing many of the same trends, wonders if Islam, in its austere fecundity, might eventually inherit our realm.

War with Islam is inevitable; many say it's already here. But if, in the near future, Americans find themselves planting the flag in Baghdad, they owe it to themselves and to their posterity -- if they have any -- to think about whose banner will be held high in the centuries to come. Dune was a novel, but sometimes art doesn't imitate life; it anticipates life.
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