Before World War I shattered the illusion, it was widely assumed in the West that wars between European powers — and in the Americas and perhaps also in eastern Asia – were on their way to becoming relics of a less civilized past.
Over the centuries, Catholic theologians had developed theories of war: of when and how wars can be just, and when and how the means used to fight them can be morally acceptable. The positions they advanced enjoyed broad acceptance throughout Europe and, in due course, throughout much of the world.
It was therefore taken for granted nearly everywhere that wars can rightfully be fought for limited purposes only, that they must not directly involve non-combatants, that violent means should be proportional to the ends they are used to achieve, and that intentional efforts to terrorize civilian populations are morally unacceptable.
Colonial wars were the exception. In the aftermath of the European conquests of the Americas and Australasia, with the Atlantic slave trade still inscribed in the collective consciousness of North Americans and Europeans, and with all major capitalist states hell bent on establishing or expanding overseas empires, liberal, progressive thinkers in Europe and the United States, and in Britain’s white dominions and Japan, regarded the “natives” of the lands they subjugated as sub-human “others” to whom moral constraints hardly apply.
But in the “civilized” West, war was considered nearly obsolete, and the kinds of wars that had besmirched humanity’s past from time immemorial – wars inspired by religious fervor – were thought already to have faded into the deep recesses of historical memory.
For Europe in the hundred years or so between the Napoleonic wars and World War I, this was a source of pride, as well it should have been. With few exceptions — the Crimean War (1853-1856) was one, the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) another – Europe had passed through a century of peace.
By far the bloodiest and most deadly war of the entire period, the American Civil War (1861-1865), did not even take place on European soil.
It had not always been so. In the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, large swathes of the European continent endured devastating wars of religion. The seemingly endless cascade of horrors only ended when the contending sides had fought each other to exhaustion.
In the ensuing years, faith waned, making tolerance easier. But the historical memory remained. No one wanted the turmoil of those years, or anything like it, to recur. No one thought that it would.
Even when war did erupt after the chain of diplomatic miscalculations that came to a head with the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, no one expected that it would last very long, and no one imagined the extent of the death and destruction that would befall the belligerents.
Certainly, no one foresaw the even greater horrors that would follow in the decades ahead.
And yet, the twentieth century turned out to be, by far, the bloodiest and most devastating in human history.
It could have been even worse too – by many orders of magnitude. As World War II gave way to the Cold War, only a protracted streak of incredible good fortune saved humankind from nuclear annihilation.
The original Cold War wound down in the late eighties, and effectively ended in 1989 with the demise of the Communist system in Eastern Europe and the USSR. The final blow came in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself.
Now, thanks to the triumphalism and arrogance of American and European leaders, a new Cold War with Russia is again a factor on the military and diplomatic scene. One can only marvel at the lunacy that has taken hold.
The public, however, remains indifferent. What mainly focuses its attention is another, even more improbable – and destabilizing — insanity. This one has an overtly theological dimension.
Remarkably, the passions that once fueled wars of religion are back.
A hundred years ago, this would have seemed even more unlikely than the war-driven barbarism that was about to engulf the “civilized” world.
World War I devolved into a total war as quasi-rational patriotism gave way on both sides to irrational calls for total victory.
Even so, the liberal-rational worldview that had prevailed in Europe in the years before 1914 survived to some extent. Whatever else it may have been, the First World War was not about ideas or anything else that might spark the kinds of passions that wars of religion do.
World War II, in Europe at least, had a more overtly ideological – and therefore religion-like — cast. How could it not when its central players included ideologically committed Nazis and Communists?
In the Pacific, World War II, like World War I, was about more economic, diplomatic, and military advantage; in Europe, it was about all that and social and political ideals too.
Against this background, even liberal democracy took on an ideological dimension. Accordingly, it became an objective of the Allied powers, minus the Soviet Union, to impose it upon the world. They are still at it; the United States, above all.
This effort has always been hypocritical; economic interests and reasons of state have always trumped the West’s sanctimoniously declared ideological commitments.
However, the commitments are no less heartfelt on this account.
The Cold War was therefore widely thought to be – and, to some extent, actually was – a struggle between Communism and liberal democracy. But it would be a mistake to make a great deal of this. As time wore on, these ideals, though never abandoned, no longer inspired much enthusiasm.
It was different in regions that had been dominated by colonial powers and that fell, in varying degrees, outside the ambit of the two world superpowers.
In these venues, nationalist sentiments sometimes gave rise to degrees of fervor that were previously unknown outside religious contexts. Nationalism became a kind of religion.
Something similar happened in parts of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union after the Communist order disintegrated.
Communism had held the nationalisms that flourished in those regions before and after the First World War in check, but it never quite extinguished them. When Communism fell, the repressed returned with a vengeance.
Nationalism can be progressive, and there can be such a thing as rational patriotism. However, most nationalisms today have very little to do with any rationally defensible worldview. They reek of what the Biblical Prophets would call idolatry. They substitute the Nation for God.
They therefore underwrite the kinds of fanaticism, intolerance and barbarism that, humankind was supposed to have long ago outgrown.
Still, even the most fanatical nationalists are downright reasonable compared to the God-fearing “fundamentalists” who have lately come upon the scene.
The word commonly used to describe them is misleading: strictly speaking, “fundamentalism” refers to an apolitical strain of Protestant theology and practice that emerged years ago in the American hinterlands in reaction to the liberalizing tendencies of mainstream Protestant churches.
But the usage is, by now, almost standard, and there is no more suitable word readily at hand.
Fundamentalist politics did not arise out of nowhere; it took root and grew on the terrain nationalists had already staked out. However, it would be a mistake to see it as just one more step down the century-old slippery slope that brought passions associated with wars of religion back into real world politics.
The fundamentalisms afflicting the world today represent a qualitatively more irrational retrogression.
As it was in the axial age more than two thousand years ago, the Land of Israel, as Zionists call it, is one of the epicenters of the changes taking place.
For as long as Zionists have been seizing Palestinian land, Palestinians have resisted — with greater or lesser degrees of intensity depending on circumstances. During the First (1987-1991) and Second (2000-2005) Intifadas, the level of resistance was especially intense.
Thanks mainly to the provocations of settlers in the Occupied Territories and the expansionist and racist policies of Israeli governments, an ever-present reality that has become worse since Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister, the conditions for a Third Intifada are again in place.
Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza last summer, the third in roughly six years, was especially inflammatory.
However, to secure his own survival and the survival of his political allies, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is desperate to prevent its eruption.
Most Israelis hope he succeeds if only because they realize that a Third Intifada would be bad for Israelis and for Israel.
Nevertheless, many Israeli Jews, fundamentalists, are working diligently to bring the violence on.
Their goals are political, of course, but also unabashedly religious.
They want Israel to take over the Al Aqsa mosque compound — Israelis call it the Temple Mount – destroy the Dome on the Rock, and build a Third Temple there.
It is relevant that the Al Aqsa mosque is the third holiest site in Islam.
It is relevant too that the Dome on the Rock is thought to sit on the site of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE.
This could just be a deliberate provocation, a Jewish counterpart, say, to the beheadings that the Islamic State (IS) uses to terrorize Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria into accepting their authority, and to draw American and other Western combat troops back into the region.
The IS’s strategy is barbaric, but there is a method to it, as shown by the fact that, so far at least, it has been remarkably successful.
Yehuda Glick, the Israeli-American rabbi shot outside the aptly named Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem may have had something similar in mind. Perhaps he was impressed at the IS’s proficiency at pushing the West’s buttons.
Perhaps his idea, and the idea of the organization he speaks for, the Joint Committee of Temple Organizations, is only to be similarly outrageous in order to push Palestinians’ buttons and the buttons of Muslims around the world.
He got himself shot for his troubles, but he could have – and indeed may yet have – inaugurated a major escalation in the level of violence, perhaps even a new Intifada.
This would serve the purposes of many right-wing Israelis.
One of those purposes is, of course, to establish a Jewish state, ethnically cleansed of Palestinians, over all of Palestine.
If that was Glick’s idea, the ravings that got him shot would at least be comprehensible.
One has to wonder, though, whether there isn’t more involved.
There is every indication that Israeli Jews who agitate for building a Third Temple are not just trying to be provocative. Quite the contrary, they seem actually to mean what they say.
What they say is that they want to restore the priestly cult and ritual practices — animal sacrifices and all — that became defunct in Ancient Israel nearly two thousand years ago.
Zionism’s founders must be turning summersaults in their graves.
Zionism was a creation of assimilated liberal intellectuals in the West. Its founders were not even particularly nationalistic or ethno-centric. What motivated them was the thought that only a Jewish state could save European Jewry from the ravages of anti-Semitism.
In this respect, Zionism was of a piece with ways of thinking dominant in the liberal West at the time. Its program accorded with Western racism and colonialism too.
This was why, until more pressing political considerations took precedence in the years preceding the outbreak of World War II, Great Britain, then the governing power in Palestine under a League of Nations mandate, welcomed the Zionist project.
As a colonizing enterprise, the last the West launched, Zionism served British purposes in the Middle East.
From the beginning, though, most of the Jews who immigrated to Palestine came from Eastern Europe. Not surprisingly, therefore, Zionism and Eastern European nationalisms are much alike; they are cut from the same cloth.
Partly for this reason, Zionism’s trajectory would likely also have caused dismay to Zionism’s liberal (and socialist) founders — especially after 1948, when the state of Israel was established, and even more plainly in the decades that followed the 1967 Six Day War, when all of Mandate Palestine fell under Israeli control.
From the beginning, but in recent years especially, Israeli society drifted away from Zionism’s liberal and secular origins – towards attitudes more usually associated with the illiberal and intolerant regimes that Eastern European Jews in the pre-War period came to Palestine to escape.
This was probably inevitable in an ethnocratic settler state that could not have come into being without brutal and extensive ethnic cleansing.
What no one would have foreseen, however, was that, in the twenty-first century, fundamentalist currents would emerge within the Zionist movement that would rival or even outdo those that have lately become widespread in parts of the Muslim world.
In the modern era, most of the world’s religions – Christianity certainly, and also the religions of India – have been similarly afflicted. Fundamentalism is a reaction to modernity and an expression of identity politics. It represents the obverse side of progress.
It is therefore fair to say that fundamentalists, many of them anyway, don’t really believe what they say they do. Or that when they do sincerely believe what they say, they are deceiving themselves; that their beliefs are proxies for other concerns.
But perhaps not always – in just the way that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, sometimes true believers probably do truly believe.
In view of how patently irrational their beliefs are, it is comforting to think that when this is the case, ignorance is the reason why.
But not knowing better can only account for true believers in remote areas where ways of thinking that were superseded elsewhere centuries earlier still survive.
Then what is Yehuda Glick’s excuse — or the excuses of would-be Temple cultists who think like him?
What Glick and the others want is even more preposterous than, say, the official goals of the Islamic State.
A restored Muslim Caliphate throughout Mesopotamia and beyond would probably amount to little more than a reconfigured state system in the region. But even if IS militants have more atavistic goals in mind, their thinking is still a good half millennium more advanced that Yehuda Glick’s.
He and his militant co-thinkers want to regress more than two thousand years!
How, even after all the horrors visited upon the world in the last hundred years, can they be that retrograde, that irrational?
A formal (or mathematical) demonstration is the gold standard for rational belief acceptance; beliefs supported by a preponderance of evidence are also rationally compelling.
When beliefs fail to meet these standards, it could be for any number of reasons: insufficient information and outright misinformation are high on the list; so is inadequate reflection.
Ideological commitments can also interfere with belief formation. And, of course, people can be deliberately deceived and can deceive themselves.
Belief formation is also sometimes impaired by pathological conditions of various kinds. Clinicians can usually identify and sometimes account for particular instances of this phenomenon; almost anybody can detect extreme cases.
But even when a belief is only of clinical interest, a kind of empathic understanding is still possible. No matter how amused or incredulous non-believers may be, they can at least grasp what it would be for persons to believe the nonsense they do.
There are some beliefs, however, that defy this kind of understanding.
To borrow, out of context, a much discussed example of John Rawls, one of the most influential philosophers of the later decades of the twentieth century, imagine someone who claims to find meaning in life by, say, counting blades of grass on lawns.
We can understand what the words mean, but we cannot truly understand the thought behind them because it is all but impossible to empathize with the claim the words express; the grass-counter’s declared way of finding meaning in life is too remote from any humanly possible attitude we can identify with.
Perhaps it was different centuries ago, but, in the modern era, the beliefs fundamentalists profess, when they are not proxies for beliefs that, however onerous or misguided, are at least humanly possible, are relevantly like the claim of Rawls’s grass-counter.
We can understand the words, and perhaps also the history that attaches to those words, but can we also grasp the literal meaning of what those words say?
A century ago, no one in the “civilized” Western world would have thought so.
And notwithstanding the racism and hypocrisy that was endemic in Western circles then (and still today), our ancestors’ inability to comprehend what fundamentalists claim, and therefore to take them at their word, still seems eminently sound.
Rabble-rousers who think that God wants them to resurrect a bloody ritual cult that went extinct two thousand years ago — who believe this literally and with zealous, even murderous, fervor — inhabit a different moral and intellectual universe from the one that humanity has forged for itself in the years since 70 CE.
Without quite renouncing the Temple cult in its entirety, the thinkers and scholars who created rabbinical Judaism long ago reinterpreted its archaic rules and practices beyond recognition.
Needless to say, rabbinical Judaism is not exactly a beacon of Reason itself. But, for Jewish fundamentalists, it used to be enough just to follow rabbinical dictates to the letter.
Now, in a great leap backwards, fundamentalists like Glick and his co-thinkers have gone beyond even that.
How could twenty-first century politics have taken such an atavistic turn!
Yet, there it is. Idiocies the human race overcame millennia ago are back on the agenda.
One can only turn away in despair.
ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).
But, with so much at stake and with the world in such a precarious state, this is not an option.
The First World War was supposed to make the world safe for democracy. It didn’t quite work out that way.
Therefore now, a hundred years later, there is an even more urgent task at hand: to make the world safe for Reason itself or, what comes to the same thing, for the moral, political and social advances of the past two thousand years.