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Islam the only meaningful Religion - William Rees-Mogg

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    Islam the only meaningful Religion - William Rees-Mogg

    January 3 2000 OPINION

    These foolish, shallow celebrations demonstrate the West's weakness

    We haven't a prayer

    By William Rees-Mogg

    We were celebrating the 2,000th anniversary of what is for Christians the most important event in the history of mankind. The people of Tonga understood that, and sang Handel's Messiah. Nelson Mandela understood it; he went back to his old prison to light a candle of hope; John Tavener understood it, and his music briefly restored the idea of God to the proceedings. But the new global village could think of no better way to celebrate than by letting off tons of sparklers, some of different colours. The poor Archbishop of Canterbury was not even allowed to say a Christian prayer at midnight, in case it offended non-Christians or conflicted in the television schedules with the rockets.

    If they had not been so meaningless, one might have thought these celebrations were a statement of neo-paganism. I would almost have preferred a wholehearted dance to the Sun-God. At least that would have been saying something. Or we could have enjoyed a celebration of the rites of Mammon, with a cornucopia of gold sovereigns dropping down on Tony and Cherie from the top of the Dome. (I heard one television commentator say that the Queen looked pleased as she shook hands at midnight "with the first family". That was a privilege for her!)

    Yet there always is a message, no matter how banal the appearance. As the different channels competed to show the world letting off its rockets, two things became apparent. Christianity, indeed religion as such, is seen by the producers as a quaint minority interest, a suitable occupation for those who are out of touch with modern life; old people, non-celebrities, people who live on remote Pacific islands. How jolly it is to see the funny Tongans worshipping their funny God. What is his name? I think they call him Jesus Christ. The second point was that television is at its best in showing coloured lights, not in dealing with language, truth or logic. But we knew that already.

    I do not know whether one should be more worried if one fears that the producer's view might be true, or if one knows it to be false. In fact, the millennium celebrations were crowding out of the headlines the news of religion as it still is, as an ancient, powerful, sometimes even bloodthirsty, force, and a basic instinct of the human psyche. The millennium celebrations could be regarded as a tribute to global electronic hedonism; as a motive force in human affairs, hedonism, even in the form of sex, only gets the bronze medal; the silver goes to money, and the gold medal goes to faith.

    Three millennial events show that Islam, at least, is still very much alive.

    There was the hijacking of the Indian airliner, the Iranian outburst against Israel, and the bombardment of Grozny. Grozny led to the millennial appointment of Vladimir Putin as acting President of Russia. Each of these was a religious event; each represents the conflict between Islam, in its fundamentalist form, and another of the world religions. The conflict in Kashmir which lies behind the hijacking has been a territorial war between Muslims and Hindus. The Iranian abuse of Israel is a conflict between Islam and Judaism. The war in Chechnya is one between Islam and Holy, if post-Communist, Russia.

    None of these can be regarded as a minor dispute; of the six nations involved, five are nuclear powers, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel and Iran, though Iran's precise nuclear capability is not altogether clear. Only the Chechens do not have nuclear weapons; that may be why Mr Putin feels able to threaten them with yet new terrors of war technology, and indeed is accusing them of using chemical weapons he may be about to use himself.

    Perhaps the Iranian war of words against Israel is the least dangerous. Iran and Israel do not have a common border, though Iranian support for anti-Israeli terrorist movements has cost many lives. Yet the Iranian outburst was outrageous, by any standards. Iran's "supreme leader", the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that "there is only one solution to the Middle East problem, namely the annihilation and destruction of the Zionist state". He went on to attack the peace process itself and Yassir Arafat, whom he called "a traitor, and stupid too". Fortunately the extremists who use this language have powerful opponents in Iran, though themselves represent an important influence.

    The hijacking, which involved the murder of one of the passengers, secured the release of three extremist prisoners from India. The most important is Mulana Azhar Masood, the 31-year-old Islamic cleric from Pakistan. Five Western tourists were seized in Kashmir in 1995 and a demand was then made for his release. Of these hostages, one was beheaded and the other four are still missing, believed killed. The release of the three alleged terrorists is a tactical and psychological defeat for the Indian Government. It is bad news for peace. The war in Chechnya is probably the most dangerous of the three conflicts; it not only involves the issue of Chechen independence, with the threat of a prolonged guerrilla war, but the relations of Russia with the former Soviet Islamic countries and control of the pipelines which take the oil from the massive Caspian field.

    Chechnya has resulted in two major wars in five years, and decided the immediate succession to President Yeltsin. The war is very popular with the Russian people, who regard the Chechens as a nation of criminals and terrorists, and see the war as a preliminary reassertion of Russia as a great power.

    Vladimir Putin himself is admired for prosecuting the Chechen war with complete ruthlessness; his dramatic presentation of hunting knives to Russian troops at the front is symbolic of his attitude. Many Russians think he will be the strong leader Russia needs; he is said to be an admirer of Peter the Great, who was certainly ruthless enough. If he subdues Chechnya, it may be in the old Roman style of creating a desert and calling it peace.

    The Soviet Union was destroyed by the defeat in Afghanistan; Mr Putin and the whole leadership see the war in Chechnya as a threat to Russian survival. The Americans want favourable access to Caspian oil.

    These are big issues, which major nations might be willing to fight for; Pakistan and India might fight for Kashmir; Israel would fight for survival.

    Islam has a living faith, sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile, always strong, and Islam lies across these explosive international stresses.

    Our world, the childish global village of celebrities, money and fireworks, does not have enough faith to inflate a paper bag - or so it seemed on Saturday morning. It may have been a mistake not to mix more prayer with this very superficial celebration of the second millennium of the birth of Christ.

    What site did u get this off?


      It was published in The UK Times newspaper yesterday (3 Jan 00). If you can get a hold of yesterday's copy you can read it yourself, or you can probably track down the online version.