Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 10

By Petr Silantyev

The recent horrifying explosions in New York and Washington have highlighted a real and ever-present global threat. We may argue about its deep-seated causes–the revenge of the “south” on the “north,” a clash of civilizations, the criminal madness of its leaders–but isn’t there perhaps just one main reason? The pride in belonging to one’s own “tribe,” combined with a hatred of “the other,” which is surely the greatest sin that mankind has known and failed to overcome in thousands of years.

We remember other explosions. For example, at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in 1930s Moscow, and seventy years later in the apartment blocks, in the same city, with all their residents. The statues of Buddha in Afghanistan. Smoke and gas canisters at football stadiums, and again in the clashes between police and antiglobalization protesters. The curve of instability, predicted some time ago by Brzezinski, and about which Putin was already speaking long before September 11, has now caught up the whole world and is attracting more and more supporters, from Indonesian students to British skinheads. Politicians, the military, ideologists and the common foot-soldiers in the struggle against today’s world order. But the war now being waged over the whole planet between the old and new religious orthodoxies did not break out today or yesterday.

It’s not only a matter of explosions: We may remember advertisements for prestigious Western goods and services. But what of the severed heads of kidnap victims in Chechnya? Or the Cambodian memorial built of skulls? Or the boy leading the partisans in Myanmar?

What is it–a world-wide spiritual movement, opposed to the centers of empire, populated by the marginalized and governed by people who are prepared to pursue their aims by any means? A revolt by the poor against the rich, or the oppressed against the oppressors? A burgeoning of ethnic fanaticism, as Lev Gumilev would put it? Who are the leaders of these new storm troops? Who is fighting beneath their banners, and why? What do the Palestinian suicide-bombers have in common with the youth who died in the heat of Genoa last July? Or the Arab terrorists with the new religious sects that have appeared in Europe and the United States? The first Christians gave their lives in the Roman coliseum. Might it not have been better to give in and join the people sitting in the stands, who were quite happy with bread and circuses, then as now? But it was Rome that fell and Christianity became powerful enough to hold sway over generation after generation. What does this power consist of? The answer is a common faith, where slave and master alike can believe in a Kingdom of Heaven, as bequeathed to us all by Christ’s redemptive act. A state where “a fish is worth more than a team of oxen,” could no longer offer anything to compete with that.

Although history had its revenge upon the great pleasure-loving city of Rome, hundreds of years later new temples and palaces were rising from the ruins, with new frescoes and statues, and a new music ringing out all around. Christian Europe acquired the multidimensional and universal aspect of a world civilization.


But, meanwhile, the hot dry winds of another faith were blowing in from the East. It took as its name a word that means “submission.” And almost a billion of the world’s people now submit themselves to its precepts. They speak thus of themselves and Christians: “Islam is the truth and precepts revealed by God to the people through his prophets, of whom Jesus was but one. Cleansed of all its false interpretations, this truth was given by God, in its definitive form to his “definitive and last” prophet, Muhammad.” In fact, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all share the same roots. Islam might even be described as the latest branch to grow from the tree of the world’s religions. All of them originated in the East, overcoming ancient pagan cults, as well as the oppressive yoke of the fading despotic regimes of the Egyptian Pharaohs, the Persian Kings and the Roman Emperors. “Ilaaha illallaah” means simply “There is no god but God.” That is, there is only one God. So all those believing in God should be as one. “There are not Greeks and Jews.” If only it were so, but each community–Jews and Greeks and Muslims–considered itself to be God’s chosen people, and “more equal than others.” With fire and sword they imposed their status as the Elect–the inquisitors under the flags of Christendom, and the janissaries under the green banner of the prophet. And then in the Europe of the twentieth century, supposedly fully civilized, new religions sprang up, with their own prophets, holy writs and fanatics. With Hitler and Stalin, with tanks and aircraft instead of horses and foot-soldiers. The “world’s first nation of workers and peasants” proved more durable than the Third Reich. Twenty years or so after the fall of Berlin, Soviet troops entered Prague, and ten years later it was Kabul’s turn. The heirs of Stalin and Muhammad came face to face, the red banner confronting the green. This was the Soviet empire’s final, decisive battle–and it was defeated.

Like many with a first-hand knowledge of this new, turn-of-the-century situation in Afghanistan, I believe that we were mistaken. Not, of course, in pulling out the troops. But because, in the heat of “perestroika” we lost sight of the Afghan “hot spot.” It was much the same in America, where they thought they could put the problem onto the back-burner. The vacuum they left was filled by Iran and Pakistan, who let the Taliban genie out of the bottle. Osama bin Laden began to wage war on Ahmad Shah Massoud, fighting for his own international Islamic state against the “secular” Afghan regime. In this devastated country, starving yet rich in Kalashnikovs and drugs, where literacy is limited to a knowledge of the Koran, it is easy for such as bin Laden and Mullah Omar to recruit men to the Jihad. And it is even easier in the immigrant ghettoes of Asia and Europe, where the increasingly visible “earthly paradise” of abundant western consumer goods is moving ever further beyond the reach of the young. In place of all this, there is the promise of heavenly bliss for those who die for Islam in the war with the “infidels”. War is meat and drink to bin Laden and his fighters. After the first retaliatory strikes by the US and Britain, one Taliban leader said: We are delighted, for now we are really at war.

I remember that in the Afghanistan of the 1980s it was said that you couldn’t buy an Afghan, but you could hire one. Of course this is unfair, for the Afghans, whether Pashtun, Tajik or Uzbek, are a proud, brave and handsome race. But even before Chechnya, local bin Ladens were able to hire Afghan-trained terrorists for combat in the Caucasus and the Balkans–the swollen “soft underbelly” of Europe.

Churchill and Bush, Stalin and Putin, Tito and Kostunice, Imam Shamil and Khattab, Prince Baryatinsky and General Troshev: The times change and we change with them. But one thing remains constant and that is the presence of ethnic, religious and social dissension, a burning ember used by all manner of fanatics to light the fires of conflict, around which they can rejoice and warm themselves.

In the case of bin Laden’s enterprises, the start-up capital was drawn from his own resources. But the wider international criminal “kitty” includes narco-dollars, “tithes” collected from wealthy or cowardly fellow-believers and the services of “civilized” bankers and officials who have no qualms about going fishing in muddy waters. Might it be possible to stem the flow of money to the terrorists and divert it towards the battle against them? This money, incidentally, could usefully go towards raising Chechnya, Kosovo and Afghanistan from the ruins.

There is another problem apart from money, and that is the terrorists’ psychology, which is based on a belief that they are individually and collectively chosen, and therefore entitled to use any means they choose in pursuit of their aims. This is characteristic as much of the Islamic terrorist as it is of the European neo-nazi. And the Jewish youth who shot Rabin. And the Russian teenagers who want to rid Moscow of its “blacks.” The fire is raging in many camps and many countries.

The need to deal a swift blow in response to the terrorists and their accomplices, hopefully as accurately as possible, using so-called “third generation” weaponry, is perfectly understandable. But “desert storms,” however powerful they are, still cannot turn the desert into an oasis, any more than “mountain storms” can turn mountains into valleys. Real victory will only be won when the children of Chechnya no longer hate the Russians, and when the Palestinians stop hating the Americans.


How can this be achieved? The whites and blacks managed to integrate in America, and representatives of the black minority in the Bush administration now have considerable influence over his decisionmaking in the war on terrorism. I believe that the American tradition will also overcome the new “anti-Arab” racism which has emerged amongst its citizens. However, both the old and the new allies of the United States, their parliaments and people, have problems with another kind of racism, what they see as excessive self-confidence, and more specifically a belief in the ultimate world-wide triumph of the “American dream”. And that is just amongst America’s allies. What then can we say of their enemies, which include dissidents within the West? Those who are sacrificing themselves, literally and figuratively, on the altars of their new-found religions? And those who take part in antiglobalization protests, people for whom the American model for the world economy is just too simplistic and brutal? Once before, American capitalism provided the “carpetbaggers” and “robber barons” with an entry into “high society.” Colonial empires gave place to transnational corporations, of which the first were American. The time has come once more for the success stories to share their profits with the failures, if they are to put a stop to the terror of “world revolution”, whether Islamic, communist, fascist or ecological. Some regard such charity as well-meaning stupidity, others see it as giving in to the racketeers. However, the G-7’s declaration of willingness to engage in dialogue with the antiglobalists shows a reassuring recognition that “there’s something in it,” as one expert–by no means a stupid one–expressed it

Similarly reassuring is the unanimous repudiation by the world powers, at least rhetorically, of the geopolitical profiteering of the past. Regardless of what actions Russia does or does not take within the antiterrorist coalition, Putin’s affirmation to the Americans on the day of the tragedy, that “we are with you and we will support you,” carries more weight than any summit. Just as does the U.S. agreement to the concept of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

America, as many have written and said, will never be the same again. It will be a pity if no one really ever does say again “It’s a free country,” or if police cordons around Washington Mall mean that never again will a kite be seen flying overhead, or if the only mail permitted is electronic, and then only when it’s been read by the secret services. Or that the nickname “Fortress America” should be fit only for fighter-bomber aircraft. Yet all these regrets are as nothing compared with the possibility of a repetition of September 11. It’s quite enough having to see the daily television reports about the frenzied crowds in Pakistan. One of the revelers reassured French journalists: “Don’t worry, it’s only Americans and Russians we want to kill.”

Whether by act of God or because of their particular history, the two truly apocalyptic horrors of the last few decades have taken place in the former Soviet Union and today’s America–in Chernobyl and New York. It is clear now that the material achievements of civilization not only do not guarantee its future, but may even bring about its destruction. Less obvious, unfortunately, is the emptiness of our hopes that the twenty-first century might see mankind reaching a new spiritual maturity; the majority still pray to the “Lord of the Flies”? What has happened now has been foreshadowed by everything that has been happening to us from Biblical times onwards.

Man, dissatisfied with the world around him and suffering within it, unable individually either to understand it or even to change it for his own personal advantage, attaches himself to the crowd, the pack, to any group of people in the same dilemma. A leader of sorts emerges and elaborates an ideal goal, the attainment of which must be sought by methods and means which are within reach of even the weakest members of the group, provided only that they submit themselves unconditionally to the interests of the group and to the leader. This is what faith is in its most fundamentalist expression. A group of this kind keeps itself apart from “outsiders” and allows each of its members to perceive himself as having been elevated from his previously lowly status to that of an “initiate.” Meanwhile, the group seeks to expand its territory and power, competing with other groups and the very society in which it is operating. The real influence of such a group and the merits of its ideology are determined by its objective circumstances, the level of its members” self-awareness and the charismatic qualities of its leader.

An unscrupulous leader will use the group to compensate for his own personal complexes–in pursuit of power, material wealth, worldwide fame or simply a “richer” life, which is to say a life of plunder. And he will use any means.

Fanatics, whose faith may well be completely sincere, care even less about their methods, more often than not declaring that the only true believers are those who set no limits in their dealings with “outsiders.” Freedom of conscience, belief, and speech are the achievements of democracy, which is itself founded on the conviction that what we have now is the best of all possible social structures. So it comes down to means. If you’ve already chosen to include stones, baseball bats, machine guns or explosives in your armory, then the man who pollutes the water supplies of the “unbelievers” with anthrax spores must surely be the truest believer of all. If the real purpose of your hymns and flags is to divide everyone into “us and them,” then an individual human life becomes worthless.

“The problem is not faith as such, but a covert aggressive type of religiosity that embodies a projection of our passions or bears the imprint of social and moral ossification.” These are the words of a theologian who was savagely killed in what was supposed to be Russia’s epoch of “new thinking.” “Unreconstructed” thinkers of the old school recently tried again to sell off the memorial raised to him for scrap metal. Yet his murderers have still not been identified. Wrong-doing must be punished. But revenge upon bin Laden is just one episode in a world war, which alternately flares up and then fades away, but which will in fact never end. While there has been a lull, we have been too greatly preoccupied by the “rat-race,” but we will only truly become people “fashioned in God’s image” when the murderers have finished their business. Is this perhaps the way the world is meant to be: A perpetual struggle between the light and the darkness, a never-ending round of victory and defeat for good and evil? And is the real answer hidden deep inside man himself?

It was with questions that this man began, and with questions I shall end. But I know one thing at least: The Taliban’s solution is not for me.

Petr Silantyev is a freelance journalist.