It is more or less agreed by our rulers, and indeed by those who rule the Western world, that religion is not very important; it is dying. Ed Stourton, a BBC journalist, has written that:
The BBC and other broadcasters have an “allergy” to religion and regard it as an eccentricity that is best ignored .. [he] said the British media’s “blind spot” had led to a “catastrophic misreading of events” in the Middle East and other regions where religion plays a crucial role in political life.
Fondly imagining that the rest of the world shared this view, President Obama and those who advised him utterly failed to understand events in the Middle East, as did President Bush and those who advised him; the same is true of the British. They all imagined that history had come to an end when the Soviet Union collapsed; the only rival to Western liberal capitalism had bitten the dust, and the future would be about the rest of the world adapting to it. The future has been about everything but that.
Islam has been resurgent since the 1970s. For all their horrors, Saddam Hussein, like the Assads, stood for a secularised Arab world along the model pioneered in Turkey by Kemal Ataturk. The decision to invade Iraq and depose Saddam was bound to encourage Iran, by removing the only Power in the region which could challenge it; that no in the UK or US Governments seemed to understand this amazed me at the time; it continues to do so. But if you do not understand religion and its power, then the amazement vanishes. Obama and company do not have the intellectual underpinnings which would allow them to grasp the situation, and their Pol Sci trained advisers know all about game theory and nothing about religion.
What they need to do is to throw out the whole Enlightenment project assumption that Western secular values are universal and destined to triumph. Neither in the Middle East nor in China is this happening; there is no intrinsic reason why it should. They also need to understand that Putin’s support for the Orthodox Church is not purely a political calculation; with Communism dead, only Christianity remains as a force to unite such an ethnically-diverse country. Like Constantine, Putin recognises that the power of the Christian Faith is not just other-worldly. A group of liberals who insist that religion has a purely private function cannot understand these things. The men who are going to split apart the artificial states constructed by the British and the French in the aftermath of the Great War do understand them. They see that Islam, whether in its Sunni or Shia forms, offers a unifying force where no others exist.
The West put its shirt on the idea that those Iraqis and Afghans whom they supported would be able to deliver their dream for them; these men told the West what the West wanted to hear. The West is about to lose its shirt, and if these men do not get out, they will lose their heads.
Quite what we can do about this in the short-term is unclear. But if we are to do anything about it in the long-term, Obama and company need more theologians and fewer political scientists.