Canadian newspaper columnist David Warren has fond memories of growing up in Lahore. He has used these boyhood memories and his wide reading to produce perhaps the most provocative essay on Islam I’ve read. I am not going to summarize Warren’s essay (which was actually a talk) for the simple reason that I am still trying to digest it.

But I am going to whet your appetite to read it by quoting several passages that have haunted me all weekend:

“By some cosmic accident, I spent the most impressionable years of my early childhood in the city of Lahore, in what was then West Pakistan. This was at the end of the 1950s, and the beginning of the ’60s, when my father was a teacher in the College of Art, across from the Lahore Museum, with the gun, Zam-Zammah, in the traffic circus between — a scene that is set at the opening of Rudyard Kipling’s wonderful epic, Kim. My father made a Pakistani wage — later we were rich, when he worked for the United Nations — but in my earlier childhood we could hardly afford to live the life you may associate with North American professionals abroad, in gated, air-conditioned isolation.
“For me, Islam is something I have touched, in the sense inadequately conveyed by the word “aesthetically”. If any of you are old-fashioned Catholics, or were, perhaps, in some distant childhood, attending the mass, absorbing the smells and the bells, the poetry and mystery of the old Latin liturgy, the family gatherings at Easter and Christmas, you can appreciate what this means — the way in which you are held by that heritage, the bonds that hold you, as strong as self-love.

“The sounds of the muezzin calling the hours of prayer; the daily rhythm of life that follows; the sight of holy men preparing their ablutions at the entrance to the mosque; the sense of the town shut up in the holy month of Ramadan; the blaze of stars as the day’s fast ends; the smells and sights of dainty food at Eid; the feeling of belonging to a very large, extended family; even the knowledge of being contained within a world that is complete, and which can explain itself in every little detail — this is what it ‘means’ to be a Muslim, and this is no small thing. ….

“…It is a commonplace today that Christians in the West have lost their faith, whereas Muslims in the East are still believers; that what we now have is a confrontation between decadent post-Christian secularists, and sincere if possibly misguided Muslims. The first part of this proposition often seems true enough, especially of contemporary Europe. But I really think the second proposition is false. I think one of the reasons Islamism has erupted with such gale force in the Muslim world is indeed the very loss of faith, and the fear that comes from this.

“They are, again to speak very crudely, in a position a little like that of our own ancestors of the later Victorian and Edwardian era, those many who had lost their faith, but continued to observe the outward forms of religion. It is exactly this kind of mind that creates the biggest welcome for the devil. I have often thought that the violent combustion of Europe in the 20th century was, at the deepest level, the fallout from the loss of faith; of the transformation of spiritual into political energy. Communism and Nazism were themselves pseudo-religions; and indeed all ideological systems, including political Islamism, are pseudo-religions — replacements for the real thing. They take infinite longings and turn them towards finite ends, and seek a new redemption not in heaven but on earth.

“Something like this — in a Muslim, of course, not a Christian form — is happening today to the Muslims, not only in Lahore but everywhere. Professor Lewis says they feel defeated by the modern world, and this is true. They have been in retreat since the Ottomans failed to take Vienna, now more than three centuries ago. They were licked in one military encounter after another, by an arrogant, triumphant Europe. Napoleon could take Egypt with a small army and his eyes closed, and then only the English could remove him. They feel they are no competition for the modern West, that those corrupt, decadent, Christian weasels have won the contest between civilizations. The issue of Israel and Palestine is a pure red herring, it is merely the point of one Western stick, which happens to be poking directly in their ribs.

“We concentrate too much on the foreground circumstances. The bigger issue is that the Muslims themselves have begun to wonder whether their God exists, whether he is really going to help them.
It is in moments of doubt that one often makes the wildest, most desperate, professions of faith; and in a way Osama bin Laden is doing this within his own person, and calling to fellow Muslims who are experiencing the same dark night of the soul. It is as if they were confronting not us, but instead Allah, and saying, ‘Show us! Prove to us you still exist; because, if you don’t, we will give up on you entirely.'”

And the conclusion (but you should really read the whole thing before getting here):

“On this side, the endless effort to understand ‘where those people are coming from’, mostly missing the main point, that they do not think as we do. On that side, no effort at all, and it is taken for granted that we are ‘infidels’ simply, living ‘beyond the pale’, even when, as often, there is no desire to harm us. For us, there can be both Israeli and Palestinian victims; for them, only Palestinians feel pain.

“I would like to call this an over-simplification — being a child of the Enlightenment myself — but I’m afraid it is not much over-simplified. The gap between us yawns very wide. For the sad truth is that the only people to whom we can appeal for ‘mutual understanding’ from the other side, are the people who have themselves been Westernized, or ‘Enlightened’.

“I must therefore end on a pessimistic note, as I look to the immediate future. As a Christian, I feel optimistic that God will lead us, Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike, finally to the best conclusion, in the grand cosmic scheme of things. But as a practical person, using everything I know to understand the present order of cause and effect, I must tell you, that this clash is unlikely to end well.”