Is this the beginning of the age of unreason?
AS EUROPEAN embassies burn in the Middle and Far East, surrounded by fanatical, hate-filled mobs, it seems astounding that this venomous destruction could have been caused by a few dreadful cartoons published in an insignificant Danish newspaper. Yet it is so. It sums up what appears destined to be a major 21st-century problem - the clash between western liberal values and Islamic fundamentalism.
Profound though the implications of that clash are, it may be too simplistic an analysis. For, at its worst, what we may be witnessing is the onset of an age of unreason, the end of an era of rational thought and discourse and the start of a time of irrationality governed by the diktats of faith.
Living as we do in a country that saw the dawn of the intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment, it may seem absurdly irrational to argue that we are now living in the dusk of an approaching night of endarkenment. The whole ethos of the Enlightenment is that it is progressive: as we make progress in our understanding of the world through logic, reason and scientific discovery, so we progress towards higher and better levels of civilisation.
But the Enlightenment and subsequent history have also taught us that nothing is inevitable. Just as flawed reason and logic led Europe into the abyss of fascism in the mid-20th century, so mistaken ideas can lead us in other equally nasty directions today.
The 18th-century Enlightenment, we should remember, broke the grip of the Church, Protestant and Catholic, on intellectual life. Out of the philosophical works of thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith in Scotland, and others such as John Locke in England and Jean Jacques Rousseau in France, people learned that the way to understand the world and its people was not by scrutiny of the Bible, but by observation, reason and deduction.
It brought an end to absolute monarchical rule, helped produce the French and American revolutions, and laid the foundations for the scientific discoveries of Charles Darwin and many others. The great genius of the Enlightenment lay in toleration and respect for contrary views, including the opinions of those who think that the word of God is the first and last word.
All of that is utterly foreign, even repellent, to the mobs outside embassies waving placards demanding: "Whoever insults Prophet Muhammad is to be killed." The striking feature of the rioters is their youth. Every news report mentions that these are not middle-aged zealots whose brains have putrefied in long-stored venom, but young men in their teens and twenties whose minds should be suffused with idealism and hope rather then revenge and destruction.
The same phenomenon is visible in the north of England. As a reporter who spent some time in Bradford and Oldham during and after riots by Asian youths, it was easy to see the root cause in unemployment and poverty, stoked by a degree of white racism. Then it became apparent that there was something else - young British-born Asian Muslims rejecting the moderation of their parents and asserting a self-identity through a more militant and extreme form of Islam. I am afraid to say it was no great surprise to me that the London Underground suicide bombers of 7/7 were home-grown Brits.
This fanaticism is not the prerogative of a fringe Islamic minority. During the evictions of Jewish settlers from Palestinian Gaza, the most frenetic of the Jewish protesters were male and female teenagers. They spat, kicked and screamed vile abuse at the evicting soldiers and observing reporters.
NOW, it may seem far too much of a stretch to say that the same things are happening in Bradford, Gaza and Damascus. Yet it seems to me that the common factor is a rise in religious fundamentalism which offers, to some young people, both an explanation for their particular predicament and a route out of it. If you are poor and oppressed, it is because of insufficient adherence to your god. By becoming more obedient to your god's word, you can solve your problems.
What is particularly worrying about this thinking is its penetration of the Christian and supposedly enlightened world. In America, as recent TV programmes by the scholar Richard Dawkins have made awfully clear, fundamentalist Christianity is on the march and its churches are full of young people. It has as its main target one of the products of the Enlightenment - the evolution theory of Charles Darwin. Its weapon is the theory of intelligent design - that living organisms are so complex that they cannot have come into being through long series of random mutations and events. There must, say these theorists, have been some sort of intelligent designing hand - ie, God.
From there, it is a short step to creationism, the belief that God created the world and everything else a few thousand years ago. And it is also a short step to the conclusion that God's intelligent design is responsible not just for the physical shape and attributes of human beings, but also for the moral code that governs how we should use our God-created bodies.
That doesn't just bring down the curtain on Enlightenment thinking; it brings us to the same point of departure as the mobs now ransacking embassies: in order to love God and do as the intelligent designer intended, we must obey his every word as written down in the Bible. In extremis, I fear, that means smiting down God's enemies, just as the defenders of Prophet Muhammad wish to destroy his enemies.
I desperately hope that I am completely wrong about this. But I cannot forget the role that religion has played in the contemporary British civil war in Northern Ireland, nor the role it played in setting neighbour at the throat of neighbour in the horrific bloodiness of the Balkans just a decade ago. Militant and extreme religious fundamentalism may be closer to the surface of our society than we think.
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