Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda
by Michael Burleigh
576pp, Harper Press, £25
Concluding this review of a work of comparatively popular history (and by that I mean this is the sort of book which you could keep on your shelf and return to when in need of the basic facts of an event) we turn to the three aspects of the last fifty years which Michael Burleigh has chosen to examine in detail: The Cold War, The Irish troubles, and the rise of political Islam.
It’s an odd period, the Cold War. Many perfectly good works of history have been written about that half century or so already, but in terms of study and sales of written history the period is still much eclipsed by WW2. No doubt future generations will find Markus Wolf and his times a lot more interesting than ours does, and we may even eventually find a satisfactory answer to the question as to whether we are merely tantalised by a past which ended just before most of us were born or just secretly more enamoured with the flamboyant cruelties of an enigmatic dictator like Stalin than a grinding bureaucrat such as Brezhnev.
Sacred Causes goes into great detail of how half of Europe returned to Single-party totalitarian rule by the late forties. Underneath all the facts, figures and anecdotes Burleigh’s Catholicism and conservatism rather unsurprisingly combine to produce a driving narrative of his own. To give a simple outline of this, the combination of a Polish Pope in the Vatican and the Polish working-class in (amongst other places) the shipyards of Gdansk, proceed to puncture the bubble of the new elites who, having claimed to be the “Vanguard of the proletariat,” had actually kept the best of everything for themselves. “Papacy nuzzles up to nazis but nobbles nomenklatur” as a headline in the Sun might have put it. It’s as reasonable a take on the times as the American one which credits Reagan alone for the fall of the iron curtain, and as long as you are aware of Burleigh’s political and theological positions and understand that all historians make subjective choices to some extent, then you will find the book a useful work of reference.
One can still be jarred by some of the lesser events in Europe at the end of WW2. For instance on the day after Budapest fell the new Russian rulers enacted: a euphemistically phrased decree on licensed cost-free abortion, on the ground that women were too weakened by wartime privations to gjve birth safely. In fact, many of them had been serially raped by Red army soldiers The metaphorical “rape” of central and eastern Europe would continue for a whole lot longer…..
Whatever the degree of success we are prepared to allow the Pope in eastern Europe, Burleigh is forced to admit that elsewhere Christianity was in full retreat, In Britain:: After a long period of constancy between 1860 and 1960, all the major indices of formal involvement with the Churches went into a sharp decline in the 1960s. Ordinations to the clergy fell by a quarter, Anglican confirmations by a third; baptisms fell below 50 per cent of live births, and less than 40 per cent of marriages were celebrated in church. It truly seemed that man was finally to free himself from the chains of religion and mythology (even if only to put himself in the paper chains of gurus and pop-psychologists.)
One major factor in this decline of Christianity were four men with guitars. The sixties, which Burleigh covers in a chapter entitled “time of the toy trumpets” (I’m sure you get the picture) must have been quite an ordeal for religious conservatives, so we must be thankful that the author is gracious enough to notice that in many Eastern European countries the sound (and visuals) of westerners blowing their toy horns was at least as important in the final overthrow of tyranny as were angels blowing celestial ones.
As Abbey road reverberated with the production of perfect pop, some of the factors which still count today began to emerge. The first mass pressure groups, such as The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament for instance, which Burleigh rather cruelly (but possibly quite accurately) describes as: largely a stage upon which Christian and humanist radical eggheads could flaunt their woolly moralism and vulgar anti-Americanism, in the conceited delusion that the hard-headed realists in Moscow or Washington would take notice of them. Some of the more militant members of such organisations welcomed The emergence of distant Marxist hybrids that spoke to a certain agrarian romanticism a (long-running) retreat from the politics of the western industrial working-classes which Burleigh finds culminating in the spectacle of German terrorists waving machine guns over Israelis they had hijacked. Whether the early seventies actually was a culmination of romantic agrarian Marxism is arguable, but narcissistic vanguardism, nearly always undertaken by privileged Europeans, was and is likely to lead only down the cul-de-sac of:: moral avant-gardes, which sought to lead the masses into a promised land of chiliastic indeterminacy (and who) have since camouflaged the fact that they themselves are a highly nepotistic and unchallengeable elite.Perhaps unsurprisingly Tariq Ali comes in for particular criticism on this score, but the leftovers and hangers on of this corrupt and burnt-out tendency can be seen desperately selling their appeals to a flawed and self-serving moralism in the comments boxes at Harry’s Place every day. The prospects for “liberation theology” in Central and South America are perhaps a little brighter, but having tried so hard to separate “true” religions from “abuses of the human religious impulse” one gets the feeling that Burleigh does not want to confront the implications of Christian/Marxist hybrids, let alone the history of Latin America as a whole.
In practice, outside the cosy studies of Western ex-polytechnic lecturers Marxism itself created desolation wherever it was essayed, not least in Africa, where the forces of ‘liberation’ in Angola, Ethiopia or Mozambique presided over decades of civil war whose direct and collateral casualties dwarfed those in South Africa or what became Zimbabwe. Post-colonial guilt was responsible for the terrible condescension visited upon Africa by a racist liberalism Still, it was all undertaken in the name of “progress” and “enlightenment” and no doubt there are still isolated basket-cases who really think that “scientific socialism” has never been tried, and is thus still a workable possibility as long as it is undertaken by themselves and their drinking pals (and this without even mentioning how the glories of the internet have allowed nerds from Byker to Brighton a new lease of life for their sub Mike Yarwood Vladimir Ilyich impressions .)
One development in religion attracted almost no attention in the sixties and seventies, and that was the immigration of people from countries where religion was all-pervasive, to a developed society where the dominant creed was secular liberalism with Christian remnants . Possibly because the main thrust of immigration arguments in the 60s and 70s seemed to revolve around the presence of mainly Christian West Indians: the religious Implications of mass immigration went unattended..
Burleigh has a point to make about the dangers of communalism. and the way he makes it is to lay into one particular country in a manner in which I have rarely seen any historian adopt. Before examining the subject (which is likely to have some people positively pounding the keyboard as they comment) I just want to think about why he does this (and why he chooses Ireland in particular) to make his point.
Burleigh needs a country which has more than one community with claims to victim status and also a good dose of romantic mythology on both sides. So starting with an anecdote aimed squarely at those romantic Americans whose dreams of mythical homelands full of leprechauns with Boston accents, lead to them raiding their pocketbooks for the benefit of Noraid, Burleigh shows that even Elie Weisel was willing to share a Clinton-sponsored “junket” with Gerry Adams, a man we are told, whose: father lit bonfires on the Black Mountain to guide Luftwaffe bombers towards Belfast, where they killed over a thousand people in a devastating series of raids that wiped out 50 per cent of the housing stock This (to my mind anyway) rather weak attack on Adams (or his dad anyway), is followed in quick succession by barbs directed at: Irish Cowboy builders (unfair stereotype), Irish travellers who think themselves outside the planning laws (OK,it happens) Irish businessmen and their hard headed business ethics (I think he has a certain airline in mind), the previously mentioned shielding of Croatian war criminals by elements of the catholic church, the country’s capacity for drink and violence, (in particular the death of Robert McCartney -killed for spilling a drink belonging to an IRA “Mr Big”,) The sinister (to Burleigh anyway) cult of Irish matriarchy (responsible for cleaning away the evidence of the McCartney murder,) the (I kid you not) relentless,mindless gabbing known as “craic” (it does grate after a few evenings, though I’m to polite to tell that to Irish friends) The Vulgar queerness of Graham Norton, and finally the “performance artiste” Michael Flately, who has produced: a truly weird cultural format consisting of boys and girls hopping up and down with their arms rigid at their sides
Nobody is going to disagree with that last choice, and in truth there is no reason why any northern European country should not be strongly criticised in this way, but in truth Burleigh is surely ten years out of date with some of his stereotypes. Something major about Ireland and the Irish changed during the 1980s, The Irishmen I met in London in the seventies and early eighties certainly had something of the doomed romantic about them, but many of the youngsters coming over since are hard hitting educated professional types whose dreams are certainly not about harps and pots of gold (let alone tricolors waving in the wind as liberty leads the people.) The real Pot of gold (which Burleigh also resents) contained EEC money and doesn’t seem to me to have been wasted on modernising the Emerald isle.
Having slammed the entire island of Ireland (I don’t want you to think that the Unionists get off from the charge of mythologising the past and constantly seeking victim status) Burleigh moves on to the troubles themselves,
I don’t intend to go into the whole history of the troubles here (though again there is a useful enough summary in the book) but some of Burleigh’s characterisations may make for interesting discussion: Ian Paisley for instance (whose Democratic unionists it must be remembered started out as very much a working-class alternative to the gin and golf-club “official unionist party”) is labelled :the religious equivalent of a Trotskyite, positively revelling in his capacity to divide a Church until he was in charge of a purer version of his own. There is some truth in that, (one only needs to recall the elitist rants which emanate from some Trotskyist blogs,) although it is difficult to see any actual Trots pulling off Paisley’s very real electoral successes, as in the communalism which the SWP seem increasingly to see as the successor to class politics they are very much the outsiders, rather like Enoch Powell in South Down.
Meanwhile according to Burleigh the Nationalist side of the troubles over the past thirty years or so has consisted of an increasingly well-educated Catholic middle class who have: managed the public relations trick of appearing to be African-American or South African blacks, with the Orange Order standing in for the Broederbond or Ku Klux Klan. Ironically, of course, a hundred years before, the Catholic white boys had been the ones gallivanting around on dark nights in white sheets. Is that the sound of Guinness glasses hitting walls that I can hear already?
It is in the communal politics of Northern Ireland that Burleigh locates early signs of a worrying development which he suggests is being repeated in the Parisian banlieus and elsewhere in Europe. Self-appointed “community leaders,” (Mr David T’s “gatekeepers”) are being ceded areas of cities to run as fiefdoms. The Macartney murder is seen as a worrying manifestation of the kind of thing which happens in areas where otherwise responsible outside politicians seem to be playing at the old imperialist game of “ornamentalism” in their own backyard, a policy which shortly will be seen as very short-sighted indeed:. As Burleigh puts it: Conditions in the banlieus of Paris have reached boiling point. One unfortunate by-product of this may be to surrender supervision of these troubled housing estates to self-appointed ‘uncles’ and Islamic clergy, probably supported by a form of militia, who will further detach these areas from modern French life This is all going rather further than I have heard suggested elsewhere, and anyway the racial and religious make-up of the Paris rioters is hotly contested. Speaking as an old Brixtonite, I must confess that I have often wondered if spontaneous rioting is not just part and parcel of city-life; Londoners at least have a long history of it, and even riots which have seemed driven by a political cause (such as those named after George Gordon) have actually consisted overwhelmingly of people eager to give the local rich and powerful a good drubbing and settle petty scores. Burleigh however suggests that the events in Paris are undertaken in pursuit of Islam’s goal of creating extra-territorial moral and legal enclaves where the writ of the Western secular state no longer runs. All rather alarmist, and historians predicting the future are notoriously wrong-headed. But let’s get this straight, Burleigh is not suggesting that every Muslim wants the return of the caliphate or is even set on turning Bethnal green into an autonomous zone. What he is suggesting is that there are people amongst the vanguard of Muslim community leaders to whom such things are a very desirable prospect. The responsible left should not only be intrinsically aware of the power of such vanguards but should also constantly remember that religious leaders (even those from persecuted minorities) are seldom progressive. In fact these are often the most conservative members of society that could possibly be found.
One thing is for sure, the experiment in Northern Ireland needs to be watched closely. It seems rather odd that after 9/11, when the Bush administration’s line on terrorism weakened the position of the IRA, Tony Blair insisted that the provos should not be conflated with Al Qaeda. Now, according to Burleigh: the ball has passed into Adams’s and Paisley’s court on the assumption that they can ‘de-fang the men of violence. This is the modern analogue of handing considerable local power to tribal chieftains for the sake of a quiet life in the imperial metropolis, a deeply worrying development in Europe’s response to aggrieved minorities, where governments surrender power to leaders of so-called communities on the presumption that these figures are ‘moderate’ and that they control the ‘communities’ they claim to speak for. In this manner, entire cities or parts of them are being subtracted from the purview of the democratically elected government to create what amount to ‘no-go’ areas. In the wider context, Governments, terrified of being called “islamophobic” or ‘racist” are handing over local power to: communal vigilantes and strongmen, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of the late Romans watching as power leached away to the barbarian. It is strong stuff when a modern historian starts to sound like Edward Gibbon, but there is a serious point here. Whatever degree you believe this to actually be happening, it will undoubtedly weaken democracy. As Burleigh points out:The real test of being British is not who one supports in cricket, but whether one accepts that Britain has autonomous national interests which are not subject to the veto of this or that minority.
The book’s clear and concise summary of the rise of political Islam and the events leading up to 9/11 as well as the Rushdie affair and the death of Theo Van Gogh would alone make it worth buying (although having a conservative tell you about it is a bit like listening to your dad warning you about something when you were a teenager) but in the final analysis as Burleigh points out: Islamic terrorist atrocities are a fact, and not a figment infiltrated into our anxious imaginings by our rulers, a favourite trope of the superficially clever who regarded the cold war in similarly domestic instrumental terms Political Islam actually exists and whoever you may be, you and your family are one of its targets. Best to get used to the idea. Burleigh suggests that: Talk of ‘Eurabia’ is alarmist, but the example of ‘community restorative justice’ in Northern Ireland (and the kind of “clean-slate” bargaining which lets the likes of Michael Stone onto the streets after serving a nominal prison sentence) indicates how entire communities can be delivered into the hands of extremely suspect so-called leaders, whose agenda (in NI) is: modest compared to those wishing to restore the medieval Caliphate to most of Spain
Having dismissed the prospect of Eurabia” as “alarmist” Burleigh can’t resist reviving its spectre in terms of a Europe where the population is ageing fast. The bare facts are that Twenty million legal Muslim immigrants have entered Europe since 1970. Many will disagree, but there seems to me to be little problem with legal immigration beyond the usual “third generation wobble” I’d venture a guess that the present craze for religion amongst many “Muslims” will not outlast the decade’s end. But, says Burleigh, The problem of illegal migrants (who really seem to not much trouble the blogosphere) may become the biggest of issues in future:No-one should mistake the human suffering involved as a tide of desperate humanity heads to Sangat or the Spanish Moroccan enclaves in an attempt to share the gloss and comparative riches of life in the west
When these hopeful immigrants arrive in Europe they are lucky to find an overcrowded flat in the Banleius or on a run-down 1960s estate (together with “community leaders” to tell them how to behave, or exactly when to join the traditional rioting if you like.) And they are also confronted by a “culture” which frankly would seem the height of decadence to an atheist arriving from mars, where young women look forward to two weeks of drunken shagging in Benidorm and young men compete to be the grossest geek on dire reality TV shows.
So what of our decadent culture? Surely we live in a country where shopping has replaced spirituality. Where Xmas is delivered to endless trashy “pound shops” in Chinese super-cargo ships. Outside the overwhelmingly middle-class blogosphere the poverty of late-capitalism stares people in the face every day. What price “Enlightenment values” at the Argos sale?
What do we have to offer immigrants that we NEED in this country? Information overload and the fractal self? Are we surprised that the certainties of even a bastardised version of religion are more seductive than that? I have a feeling the most interesting developments over the next few years may emanate from a proletariat which has mixed and matched itself and its values.
Burleigh’s own solution? More religion of course, (which, in America at least he suggests) provides a warm hearth for people in a vast and mobile society that can be cold beneath the superficial amiability
Pointing to (atheist) Polish President Kwasniewski’s famous objection to the draft EU constitution; Burleigh outlines his objection to the cult of enlightenment reason which he believes to be only half the story of European culture (and therein it seems to me anyway, lies another problem which completely ignores at least a third of the whole story): There is no excuse for making references to ancient Greece and Rome, and to the enlightenment, without making reference to the Christian values which are so important to the development of Europe Or the common sense (and common laws) of the peasant either . Without wanting to come over all Buntingesque, after Auschwitz we have to face the fact that there was always a dark side to the enlightenment project. That the more we dismissed God and folklore for science, the more we felt helpless against the powers of technology. Enlightenment philosophers saw reason as the product of individual minds, squarely missing the fact that hundreds of individual minds acting at the same time are bound to produce irrational outcomes.
And so we arrive in our present time. Over the course of two volumes which I believe to be a considerable improvement on any popular history which has come before (including Hobsbawm,) Burleigh has brought us from the high hopes of the French revolution, to the uncertainties of the present. Despite a desperate late attempt to appear optimistic he does not manage to provide us with a vision of a rosy future. How do you see things panning out yourself I wonder?