What Islamic World?

Christopher Hitchens

When I was a schoolboy in England, the term Christendom was still in use. It featured mainly in history classes and in archaic sermons, but the presumption of “civilization” as Christian (even more than as “Western”) was still half-alive in the minds of authority. So were the corresponding terms for the less fortunate or enlightened, who could still be termed heathen without too much embarrassment. I say “half-alive,” because the notion couldn’t really survive the available evidence. They didn’t teach us much about the Thirty Years War, which had been a mutual slaughter between discrepant Christian sects, but the evidence of twentieth-century Europe was enough on its own. All churches in all countries had preached that God was on “their” side, not just in one but in two world wars. And this news had leaked out—along with the queasy and semiconscious awareness that at least some of those preachings must have been fallacious, if not evil.

The obviousness of this comes back to me now, when I read half-baked stuff about how the United States must beware of antagonizing “Muslim” or “Islamic” countries. Some pseudo-sophisticates in the antiwar camp make a good deal of this, as if there really was something called “the Islamic world.” But a brief interlude of reflection puts paid to that idea. The Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, for example, is hardly less “Muslim” than the Taliban: it just took an extra zest from the killing of Taliban supporters. The next govern-ment of Iraq may not be Sunni Muslim (though the majority of Kurds, who deep-ly desire “regime change,” are of that confession), but it will certainly be made up of Muslims. No violence in volved can possibly come close to the horrific cruel-ty with which Iran and Iraq went at each other in the early 1980s.

The same mistake is made in a different way by those Muslims who refer to the “Western” side as “Crusaders.” Sir Steven Runciman, the great historian of that original criminal enterprise, pointed out once and for all time that the greatest depredation of the Crusaders was against Byzantine Orthodox Christianity, which it pillaged and destroyed on the way to Palestine. (The other salient victims of the Crusaders were, of course, the Euro-pean Jews.) Just as, in northern Ireland, Christians murder and torture Christians, so in Afghanistan the worst-treated citizens under the Taliban were the Shi’a Muslim Hazara, who have a spiritual and ethnic kinship with Iran. The behavior of the Pakistani army in Bangladesh in 1971, when it put the Muslim East Bengalis to the sword, is one of the many conclusive proofs that religion cannot define a nationality. Pakistan, the first state in the world to be defined by religion alone, is still the site of a permanent civil war between competing Islamic factions, and its self-definition is one of the many reasons for its abject failure.

Every now and then, one reads com-muniqués from the “Islamic Summit” of nations that supposedly profess the Muslim faith. These portentous statements are not just meaningless as uttered (Who can remember a coherent sentence from any one of them?) but meaningless in themselves. There is no real solidarity or common interest that binds, say, Malaysia to Yemen. Algeria is an Islamic state that has just, with great ruthlessness, put down an Islamic insurgency. Iran was only dissuaded from its own invasion of Taliban-dominated Afghanistan by a last ditch plea from the Clinton administration, after a massacre of Shi’a coreligionists. The Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo repudiated the attempts, both by Iranian Shi’a extremists and Saudi Wahhabi financiers, to impose a clerical orthodoxy upon them. No Islamic country engaged in fighting over territory with another Islamic country has ever engaged in a Ramadan truce: Christians haven’t tended to stop killing each other at Easter time either. How laughable it would now seem to everybody if the “Western” powers met for a summit and issued statements in the name of Christian civilization. (For one thing, the summits would have to exclude Japan, which they currently do not, and also China, which hopes to be attending. And that would be before the Russian and Greek Orthodox fell to squabbling with the Roman Catholics and the Calvinists.)

It is in the nature of faith to be schis-matic, precisely because God is made by man and not the other way about. Religion is simply another term for fac-tion or sect or party: it has not and cannot have any meaning higher than that. This is obvious to “Westerners” now that the West is partly defined (after endless lethal bickerings over religious allegiance) by the separation of church and state. What a pity that, when looking at the struggles of other societies to attain the same simple realization, we have a tendency to imagine that they must be anthropologically different from us. There is no magic in the word Islam, and certainly its adherents have not discovered any means of making their faith into a common cause. Why should they succeed where every other “faith” has already failed?


Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His most recent book is Why Orwell Matters.

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. His memoir Hitch-22 is published in paperback by Twelve.


When I was a schoolboy in England, the term Christendom was still in use. It featured mainly in history classes and in archaic sermons, but the presumption of “civilization” as Christian (even more than as “Western”) was still half-alive in the minds of authority. So were the corresponding terms for the less fortunate or enlightened, …

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