I have Catholic friends who never quite tire of quoting Cardinal Newman at me, that “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” I’ve often wondered if the same sort of thing isn’t true of international relations scholars; that to be deep in history is to leave the narrow, ransacked way the discipline tends to treat international history. At which point, what John Owen does is doubly special in his latest argument in Foreign Affairs (from his book, Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from The West’s Past).
A little historical comparative can go a long way to moderating the conversation on the contemporary Middle East. At its broadest level, he writes, “Western history shows that the current legitimacy crisis in the Middle East is neither unprecedented in its gravity nor likely to resolve itself in any straightforward way.” Political-theological strife is hardly unknown in the West, and even after the so-called church and state question was “settled”, many – like David Koyzis – have argued that the various ‘isms’ that tore Europe apart in the nineteenth and twentieth century were more than a little religious. It is hard, as an inheritor of the western canon and tradition, to sit too smugly on this side of the twentieth century and claim the special privilege of having transcended sectarian and religious conflict.
In fact, what Owen writes of the seventeenth century might ring just as true of the twenty-first, that “choosing an ideology was as much a political commitment as a religious one…” Certainly this is the argument of people like William T. Cavanaugh who, in The Myth of Religious Violence, makes a long case that the Wars of Religion were more about supplanting an old political-theological sub-stratum with a new one, or as he puts it, a hostile takeover of the church by the state, than an orderly separation. None of which invalidates the history Owen writes about, though it does make it clear – as he does – that the contest in the Middle East today is at once about the meaning of the religious and the secular, their boundaries, and how those things shape political legitimacy, as they were in Europe.