For more than a decade now, religious fundamentalism has been the driving force behind global events. If you see it as the underlying cause of 9/11, then our response to that event has not, alas, seemed to help. Yes, we have constructed a national security state that, at enormous financial and constitutional cost, has kept the worst from happening for longer than anyone was predicting in, say, 2002. And yes, Iraq has emerged from the abyss of dictatorship and then anarchy into an extremely fragile authoritarian-democratic state. The Taliban, moreover, have not won back Afghanistan. The worst excesses of the Bush-Cheney executive have been ended, if not purged.
And yet when you look at Iraq, you cannot but see the lethal power of Shiite fundamentalism. Watching the videos of Moqtada al-Sadr's return, one sees close-up what cultic theocracy can be. There is some kind of intense reverence for a man qualified solely by nepotism to be a demi-god. In Pakistan, the response to the appalling assassination of Salman Taseer has been a chilling demonstration of the power of Islam against core liberal values such as freedom of speech. The stain of blasphemy still seems to be a critical value of not just the Islamist but increasingly the Muslim world. In Egypt, everything the neocons warned about Arab autocracy is being proven true: it can incubate and propel Islamism rather than stifle it. But democracy's impact in Iraq, where it is now associated with both chaos and Shiite radicalism, and in Gaza, where it empowered Hamas, hardly shows a promising way forward. In Israel, the politics cannot be understood any more without a deep understanding of the increasingly powerful religious parties and their expansionist goals. In every cycle, fundamentalist religion is winning and secular moderation appears to be waning.
There may be little hope for intervening in this process. In a decade, we have learned the hard limits of control and the very modern reach of religion released from culture and tradition.
This is not our story. But it is driving our narrative. It will, one fears, for the rest of our lives.
(Photo: Pakistani Islamists chant slogans and wave flags as they gather outside the residence of arrested Pakistani bodyguard Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, the alleged killer of Punjab's governor Salman Taseer, during a rally to support him in Rawalpindi on January 7, 2011. By Amir Qureshi/Getty.)
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