TCS Daily

Where Is the Poland In This New Cold War?

By Rand Simberg - April 5, 2005 12:00 AM

Pope John Paul II will be known for many great achievements, but foremost among them will be his unique role, in conjunction with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and others, in helping end the Soviet empire, a feat that few thought possible when he first donned the shoes of the fisherman over a quarter century ago.

Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was from Poland, a front line in the Cold War against the Soviets. Unlike the traditional Italian Cardinals, he knew life well on both sides of the Iron Curtain, and thus was well-placed to bring it down. While we cannot know what the primary motivations of the College of the Cardinals were in anointing him to replace his short-lived predecessor (whose name he took), this fact could not have been unconsidered in their deliberations.


While for much of the west, the Cold War was a battle of ideologies, for the Church, it was almost explicitly a religious war; but a strange one -- rather than a war between two different theistic faiths, it was a confrontation between believers and fanatical non-believers. Non-believers, in fact, whose faith in the absence of God was so strong that it became a belief unto itself. Indeed, theres nothing particularly un-Catholic about collectivism; but a collectivist state that was explicitly atheist, and one that oppressed all forms of Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, was a state with which the Church would find a quite natural antipathy.


So the 1980s alliance of the Pope, President and Prime Minister was one forged on the anvil of a common enemy, but with uncommon reasons for their animosity toward it. And for those reasons, once that enemy had been vanquished, the Church could then refocus on other challenges, one of which was the perceived threat of the hyperpower represented by a unipolar world dominated by the United States. Hence the more chilly relations between John Paul and the current president, particularly over the war to remove Saddam Hussein (despite his own persecution of the Catholic Chaldeans in Iraq).


But with the passing of the Polish Pope, the Church has a new opportunity to help defeat another totalitarian enemy both old and new, again for its own reasons.


The old enemy is, of course, Islam. When Al Qaeda uses the word "crusaders" to describe the west, it is invoking a term almost a millennium old. The war goes back further than that, to the eighth century, when the Spanish Muslims were thrown back at the Battle of Tours by Charles Martel, ending their hopes of conquering Europe. Osama bin Laden has made clear his ultimate desire to restore the lost Caliphate, and, in Europe itself, to recover "al Andalus" or Spain, which was lost to Islam half a millennium ago when Spain was reconquered by the Church and the Moors were forced to leave.


That is not to say, of course, that Christianity, which even in Catholicism has been reformed for centuries, cannot make peace with a reformed Islam. But such a reform must occur, and the new enemy that stands in the way is a new totalitarian ideology--Islamism, a blend of religion and ideology most extremely represented by bin Laden and Al Qaeda, but unfortunately also widely embraced in the Arab world, as a result of Saudi-funded propaganda in their schools called madrassas. Unlike the atheistic totalitarianism of the Soviets, it is one based on total submission to God (in this case Allah), but like Soviet totalitarianism, it is ultimately incompatible with Catholicism (or any religion other than fundamentalist Islam).


So where is the Poland in this new Cold War? Where are the front lines in clashes between Christianity and Islam? Given the widespread nature of both religions, and the numerous geographical overlaps between them, there are many ongoing skirmishes across the globe (just as was the case against the Soviets). For instance, Christians (as well as non-Sunni Muslims) are being targeted by many of the bombings in Iraq. But it could be argued that some of the longest-running and intense battles are occurring at the interface between the two faiths in Africa, and particularly Nigeria (though the genocidal activities in the Darfur region of the Sudan are another instance). For years, the Islamic northern regions of Nigeria have been attempting to impose Sharia (or Islamic) law on the southern, Christian regions. This includes the penalties of stoning women (but not men) for adultery (which is often simply rape). Just as Poles understood Soviet communism in a way incomprehensible to people in western Europe, the people of Nigeria know the new totalitarian enemy as well as anyone on the planet.

So, will the College of Cardinals once again anoint a Pope tempered in the crucible of the era's ideological war? If so, there's a good chance that the next pontiff will be Francis Arinze, a seventy-two year old who was born in a small village in southern Nigeria. He is the fourth ranking Cardinal, having established his reputation for diplomacy and steadiness during the long Nigerian civil war, remaining there throughout. Not surprisingly, given his background, he is well versed in Islam, and considered a protg of John Paul II. In addition, if selected, he would be the first African pope since the death of Galacius I, over fifteen hundred years ago, so many will think that it's past time to try another one. It may well be, given the stakes, and the state of a world, in a new global war in which Africa is a key fulcrum.


The author is a frequent TCS contributor. Find more of his writing here.


TCS Daily Archives