Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Islam vs Orthodoxy

We often speak of the war on terror as a struggle between Islamism and 'the West.' But there is another player in this drama, one that has yet to be mobilized: Eastern Orthodoxy. While Orthodoxy shares many basic beliefs with Western Christians, don't be fooled into thinking they are just another denomination, like Methodists. Eastern Orthodoxy has a long history of resisting Islam and, after the fall of Byzantium, suffering under Islamic rule. The history of this struggle and suffering is not forgotten by millions of Orthodox Christians. A political entrepeneur could easily use this history to resurrect or construct stories and myths for mobilizing believers.

Look into my crytsal ball and let's imagine a possible future.

After another attack by Chechens, the Russian military goes on the offensive with all the subtlety and precision that the Russian military is known for. In response, Islamists in Istanbul use a truck bomb to destroy the Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church, killing His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.

From Greece and Ukraine, throughout eastern Europe, Serbia, Russia, and Georgia, to American cities like Chicago, Orthodox Christians go ballistic. Mosques are burned and Muslims lynched from Bulgaria to Vladivostok. Enraged Egyptians retaliate by sacking the Monastery of St. Catherine's at Mt Sinai, killing the monks and pilgrims and desecrating the sanctury. Serbs and Kosovars overwhelm local UN troops and begin armed confrontations. (This area is a tinderbox waiting for a spark. Rioters attacked UN troops with grenades earlier this year. Dozens of churches were also destroyed.)

This scenario may seem unlikely but it is not impossible. Islam and Eastern Orthodoxy share a long 'faultline' that runs through dozens of countries. Millions of Muslims and Orthodox Christians live close together, much closer than do Muslims and Westerners. For millions of Orthodox Christians and Muslims, the "Others" are not far away and seen mostly through the media. They are down the street, in the next village or across a border within driving distance. This creates a situation where armed individuals, farmers, workers, average folks, can be mobilized to take violent action. We saw intimations of this in the Beslan schools seige where Russian men attacked the school with their own rifles and locals lynched a terrorist trying to escape.

Right now it looks like the Caucuses are to our current situation what the Balkans were to the Great War. In my speculation Bartholomew I plays the role of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. I'm sure there are other candidates. The situation is so fragile, the animosities so deep and the history so bloody and bleak that any number of events could set it off. And all of this is beyond our control.

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