Where History Didn't Turn - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Where History Didn’t Turn

Lewis Namier, the great British historian, once called 1848, the year of unsuccessful revolutions in continental Europe, “the turning point where history didn’t turn.”

It’s a pithy apothegm that reveals something often overlooked in history — how different things might have been if small things hadn’t happened.

I’d like to nominate a non-turning point from American history — February 25, 1964, 43 years ago this week, when Cassius Clay, a young Olympic champion from Louisville, Kentucky, won the heavyweight crown from Sonny Liston, a surly, seemingly indomitable ex-convict who had pulverized the previous champion, Floyd Patterson, much to the chagrin of the boxing world.

Upon winning the title, Clay promptly announced that he had undergone a religious conversion. Abandoning his Southern Baptist roots, Clay said he had become a disciple of Elijah Muhammad, the spiritual leader of America’s Black Muslims. Symbolically, he was changing his name to Muhammad Ali. As a newly converted Muslim, he urged other African Americans to renounce the “slave religion” and adopt the true religion of the black man.

It was a pivotal moment. The Black Awakening was in its earliest stages. Mississippi’s “Freedom Summer” would begin only a few months later. The Civil Rights Bill was still making its way through Congress. All the major urban riots lay ahead. On the other hand, the Black Muslims, formed in the 1930s, had thrived in the prisons, steadily gaining membership until early 1960s when it snared its most visible convert, Malcolm X. Clay’s conversion offered a completely new direction for the impending revolution.

Yet it didn’t happen. And, black and white together, aren’t we glad?

Imagine what this country would be like now if African Americans constituted an Islamic fifth column in alliance with Muslims throughout the world. It is no exaggeration to say that America would probably be torn apart. Why didn’t it happen? There is only one answer — Christianity.

The appeal of the “slave religion” proved too strong for the vast majority of black Americans. Martin Luther King — an ordained minister — obviously played the key role. Through slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, Christianity had been a centerpiece of African-American life and remains so today. Politicians seeking their way into the black community always start with the churches. This allegiance prevented African Americans from becoming completely alienated from Western civilization.

A religion is a template for a personality. Parts of every individual are formed by his own experience but parts are provided by the culture, which generally means religion.

We are just beginning to recognize this in Iraq. Four years ago we went in bearing the flag of democracy and offering Iraqis the opportunity to participate in a contemporary society. Now we find they aren’t much interested. They are more concerned with religion. In his excellent book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports how officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority, from Jerry Bremer on down, repeatedly underestimated the hold that the mullahs have over the population. Ann Coulter has been pilloried for arguing we should deal with Islamic terrorism by “killing all their leaders and converting the people to Christianity.” Her remarks are obviously inflammatory, but in truth she cuts a lot closer to the mark than President George Bush’s vain hopes of planting democracy in the Middle East.

Religion is particularly important in socializing young males. As anthropologists continually intone, each new generation is essentially a horde of untamed savages whose instincts must be bent to norms by the culture. The family is the proving ground on which this initiation takes place. Young men are always full of fire and aggression and want to go out and conquer the world — impregnating every desirable girl they meet in the process. Only through cultural norms are these biological drives steered in socially useful directions.

In Western Christianity, the ideal is the intact family, which provides insulation from the outside world along with clear goals for assuming adult roles when young people reach maturity. Monogamy gives each male a reasonable chance of achieving this goal.

Islam sanctions polygamy, however, and that reduces opportunity for individual males. With polygamy, there are not enough women to go around. Females become a scarce commodity and must be hoarded by their families in anticipation of a “bride price” — the hallmark of polygamous societies. Muslim women are veiled and kept out of public life so their personal desires do not conflict with the family’s plans of offering its daughters to the best match.

When low-status men become surplus, their instincts toward conquest take over and a subculture of violence emerges. Family formation among African-Americans broke down in the 1970s and 1980s under the incentives of the welfare system. The result was a social catastrophe — a subculture of street violence that is still with us today.

Muslim countries — long accustomed to this dilemma — strive to turn these aggressive instincts outward, with “jihad” the social ideal. It doesn’t always work. The history of Islam is one long depressing chronicle of high-status men monopolizing women in “harems” while excluded males go off in the desert and decide that what is being practiced by the elite is “not the true Islam.” They crash back upon the centers of power, overthrowing the established order and setting up their own polygamous regimes. Very few caliphs ever died peacefully.

What American faces across the world today, then, is a vast horde of unattached, unsatiated young men. In Iraq they are the “bad guys,” loosely defined as all males between ages 16 and 24. Having failed to implant democracy, the job of the U.S. Military has become to keep this population in check. Their job is hardly different from that of the police in American cities, who are constantly facing hordes of “crime-prone” young men. It is an endless task.

But there are things for which we can be thankful. In Iraq, Muslim culture — however flawed — does provide a stable family background that prevents violence from becoming completely random and steers it into specific channels — i.e., killing rival religionists. And in America, however unhinged the underclass culture may have become, it has never developed an ideology or religion that would universalize its grievances against Western society.

As we go about our lonely task trying to keep peace and order in the world, we can at least be glad of this much. In the 1960s, African Americans resisted the call to join a religion that would have eventually put them in league with our enemies.

Things could have been a whole lot worse.

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