I read somewhere that the spread of early Christianity was encouraged by the fact that many subjects of the Roman Empire had no stake in its status quo. Christianity offered a refuge for the powerless outsiders. A similar condition prevails today, when populous Third World countries have been left behind by the phenomenal wealth-creating engine of global capitalism. Islam finds an eager audience among these unfortunates and outcasts from society such as those who fill our prisons. The prosperous, high-tech world has nothing to offer them and they have little to lose.
Two thousand years ago, Christianity won converts with the message that this world was an empty shadow of the world to come, when the last would be first and the meek would triumph over the strong. Islam promises glories to its martyrs, but also the prospect of victory in the here and now. Its ambitious, angry clerics see the West as decadent, weak, vulnerable.
Their imaginations are stirred by the memory of Islam's past greatness, including the spectacle of Ottoman troops at the gates of Vienna 300 years ago. They enjoy taunting us with the charge that we are in love with life, whereas they are eager to die. The image comes to mind of the Visigoth army at the gates of Rome in 410 AD, when its leader Alaric taunted the trembling Romans: "The thicker the hay, the easier it is mowed."
While Islam is inflamed with messianic energy and absolute certainty, the secular West, exhausted by 20th Century wars, is filled with self-doubt and relativism. The churches of Europe are empty, but the mosques are full. Aging populations and declining birth rates in Europe face prolific Muslim populations in isolated ghettos agitated by unemployed, frustrated youths.
It's not too hard to imagine a day when Muslims outnumber Europeans and would be able to declare Islam the official state religion. Someday the muezzin may call the faithful to prayer from St. Peter's in Rome as he does from the great mosque of Istanbul, which was once a Christian church. Must Christianity revive its militant, messianic zeal to compete? Or are we infidels destined to convert to Islam to save our necks?
l T. H. Huxley described life as an infinitely difficult and complicated game which each of us plays with a "calm strong angel." The angel would rather lose than win, but "never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance." Doesn't it seem like a primary duty, he asks, for each of us to learn the rules of the game?
Without wishing to join the debate about "Intelligent Design," it's hard for me not to believe that the scenario in which we find ourselves has been designed to test us, if not by a "calm, strong angel," then by a playwright of divine ingenuity. How can it be by chance that a nuclear showdown is brewing in the part of the world where Christianity, Judaism and Islam were born? "Without any luck, in 15 to 20 years, we could see :Turkey, Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Syria and Israel : full of nuclear weapons," writes Henry Sokolski in The Wall Street Journal. To make the play interesting, the playwright has given us godlike power and is watching to see if we will use it to destroy or save ourselves.
The difference between us and characters in a play is that we have free will. The way the story ends is up to us. To survive, we may have to take the "global village" analogy seriously and invent other social structures than competing nation states and fundamentalist religions to reconcile our differences. We may have to share some of our wealth, accept a lower standard of living and bring the outcasts into the club. The alternative is to abandon them into the arms of fanatics who are untroubled by the prospect of hastening the end of the world.
I would like to think that the playwright is rooting for us. But if we blow ourselves up, he can just start all over again. For all we know, the same story has been told many times, the same game has been played in other universes by creatures like ourselves who have not yet learned how to win.