Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The Hinge of the World

How Saudi Oil and Western Ideas Connect Two Opposite Civilizations

By Robert Tracinski

The recent terror attacks on Westerners in Saudi Arabia reveal a crucial reason why a deadly clash between Islam and the West is unavoidable in the 21st century--and why only one of those civilizations can survive the clash.

The conflict between Islam and the West would be inevitable in any case, but there is one factor that makes the clash particularly urgent. The brute facts of geography do not, in the long run, determine the fate of the world, but one such fact is of unusual importance: the presence of an enormous portion of the world's oil reserves beneath the Arabian peninsula.

This geographical accident connects the heart of Western Civilization--the need for man-made power to drive our industrial civilization--to the heart of Islamic Civilization: the holy city of Mecca and the traditionalist Arab-Muslim societies of Arabia.

Like fratricidal Siamese twins, two opposing civilizations have been joined at the heart.

The negative effect for the West is clear. Oil is what allows the primitive religious tribalists of Arabia--who, on their own efforts, could menace us with nothing more powerful than camels and bolt-action rifles--to be infused with a flood of material wealth siphoned from the fountainhead of industrial civilization. That is the result of our failure to prevent the nationalization of Arabian oil reserves discovered and tapped by American, British, and French companies.

But the dependency goes both ways. We are dependent on Arabian oil--but they are dependent on Western economic development and on Western scientific and technological expertise. That is the ominous implication--ominous for the Saudis--of the recent terror attacks in Arabia. These attacks are an attempt to drive out the Western businessmen, scientists, and engineers who keep the supply of wealth flowing into the Arab and Muslim world. While our dependence is physical--we need their raw materials--their dependence is mental: they need our brain power.

And that is how this purely material factor--the geography of world oil reserves--connects to the deeper reason for the clash of civilizations: the West's mental invasion of the Muslim world.

I began by saying that the heart of Western civilization is oil, while the heart of Islamic civilization is their religion.

On a deeper level, however, the relationship is exactly reversed. It might seem as if the focus of our civilization is material: industrial production, fueled by oil--while the focus of theirs in spiritual: the 14-century-old Muslim faith centered in the Saudi city of Mecca. In fact, the Arab world's only real strength is its oil wealth--while our strength, a force which the Arabs both depend on and fear, is our ideas.

The Saudis are dependent on Western scientific and technological expertise to keep their oil pumping. That's what allows their universities to keep turning out graduates in Islamic theocracy, who are then sent around the world to promote the fanatical Wahhabi Muslim orthodoxy, rather than turning out graduates in geology or engineering. If they could maintain that neat separation, allowing Western experts into Arabia to keep the black gold flowing--but keeping them safely quarantined from Arab society--the connection between the two civilizations might not be fatal.

But this has proved impossible--and that is why Arabian oil is not the deepest reason for the deadly clash between our civilizations. Arabian oil makes the clash more urgent for the West--but it is already urgent and inescapable for the Muslims, for reasons that have little to do with oil.

Islamic civilization is founded on a fanatical religious fundamentalism. The idea that God is everything--that he holds first claim on the believer's mind and values--is central to Islam. This allows no compromise with any secular influence coming from the scientific, individualistic societies of the West.

The invasion of such secular influences was limited, in previous centuries, by the Islamic world's ability to insulate itself from Western ideas. The cost the Muslim world paid for its insularity, of course, was centuries of stagnation--while the West harnessed the power of its new secular ideas to achieve a sweeping Renaissance and a powerful Industrial Revolution.

The growth of Western technology has brought our secular civilization increasingly in conflict with Muslim civilization, but the most recent achievement of the West has brought the conflict to a crisis: the development of the modern Western media.

For centuries, Arabs and Muslims have looked with dismay on the growth of the West's power, and they have feared its expansion into their territory. But in the last decades of the 20th century, and at the beginning of the 21st, the Muslims are threatened with a Western invasion carried directly into the hearts of their societies, in a form that is faster and more irresistible precisely because it is non-material. It is an invasion of foreign ideas and entertainment, carried by satellite TV signals, music CDs, magazines, DVDs, and the Internet--the whole fearsome armada of Western telecommunications.

It is an invasion that promises a liberation grasped by every young person who encounters it: a liberation of the young Muslim's mind from the stultifying conformity of religious dogma and of his values from the hopeless stagnation of the primitive tribal and religious morality imposed on him by his elders.

Hence the great Arab and Muslim dilemma of our era. Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharaff, in an op-ed for the Washington Post, recently described his vision for "Enlightened Moderation," an article that echoed the same themes as former Malaysian strongman Mahathir Mohammed. The theme of these Islamic "reformers" is this: that the Muslim world needs the economic and technological development that is only possible if they import the education and technical knowledge offered by the West--studying our ideas, adopting our mental habits, and opening the Muslim world up to Western intellectual influence. But both Musharaff and Mahathir are desperately trying to find a way to do the impossible: to open their societies to the benefits of our civilization's science, while maintaining their civilization's traditional religious dogmas.

That is the Arab and Muslim dilemma. Our scientific, technological, industrial civilization is the very thing that makes their Arab oil valuable, and it is our science and technology that the Muslims need to harness to avoid becoming a politically, militarily, and economically irrelevant backwater. But this is also the influence that will destroy their civilization.

There is no way out of this dilemma. And that is why I keep reminding my readers that, as I put it, "the enemy has problems of his own"--problems far worse than we face. No matter what setbacks we suffer in this clash of civilizations, and no matter what material terrors they may succeed in visiting on us in the short term, the dusty dictates of Islam are no match for the intellectual and spiritual power of our civilization.

Western ideas are the hinge of the world. That hinge is closing in upon them, and they cannot stop it.

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