The World is Kept Hostage by Fundamentalists of all Stripes

The Russian Orthodox Christian tradition is not apocalyptically-minded and could inspire reconciliation in a Middle East torn apart by a conflict of civilizations


The author is an ex-Soviet dissident and political prisoner who emigrated to the United States and became a senior research fellow at the Hudson Institute, a leading neoconservative think tank. In the 1990s he became disillusioned with the hostile US approach to democratic non-communist Russia and returned to Moscow.

His life story was very popular with RI readers, for whom he wrote this article.

If we want to end the current Middle East debacle, we have to really understand who drives it and why. Western media represents it as a struggle for oil and gas and as a clash of civilizations. While WWs I and II were essentially about territories and resources, this war is about the abstract ideas that underlie civilizations and philosophies.

Humanity has been drawn into the war between fundamentalists of the three monotheistic religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, each fighting for its own version of the Heavenly Kingdom. Images of unspeakable atrocities make the “civilized” world tremble in disgust and horror. Is there anything we can do to stop this madness?

The main instigator of this war is the most religious among the “civilized” nations. A majority the hegemon’s population are thought to believe in God and almost half adhere to fundamentalist persuasions.

My first encounter with fundamentalist America took place in 1987 at Pat Robertson’s 700 Club which had invited me to speak about the communist mindset. Robertson’s claim that “There will never be world peace until God's house and God's people are given their rightful place of leadership at the top of the world” had caught my attention. When I read his book, I realized that my political allies in the fight against the totalitarian Soviet regime condemned me to eternal torment in hell-fire in the company of “drunkards, communists, dictators, atheists, secular humanists and evolutionary assassins” - for being a secular humanist?

This sparked an enduring fascination with the fundamentalist mindset. I had emigrated to a beacon of Enlightenment, progress and science, the “last hope of humanity,” a living example and force for peace and prosperity, only to discover that there was another America, obscurantist, ignorant, arrogant, and prone to the violent resolution of social conflicts, living side-by-side with the enlightened one.

I agonized over how a modern people could believe in Biblical inerrancy, Satan, angels, creationism, after man had deciphered the genome, walked on the moon, transplanted organs and created new forms of life. Yet fully forty-five percent of the American population believes in all that, in America’s covenant with God and the apocalyptic End-Time.

Naturally, they elect political leaders of the same persuasion. Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, both Clintons and VPs Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney and Al Gore were all adherents of apocalyptic theology. (Grace Halsell, Forcing God's Hand, 2002). While relatively restricted in domestic policy, they are free to pursue the fundamentalist agenda in foreign arena.

This mentality makes any compromise utterly impossible because it would betray God. Fundamentalists resent moral complexity and ambiguity. They don't debate and engage in discourse; they prefer to fight over their differences. As Bush Jr. declared: "We are going to eradicate evil in the world, and those who are not with us are against us.” VP Dick Cheney concurred: "We don't negotiate with evil; we defeat it."

 How could we possibly arrest this seemingly unstoppable slide into Armageddon?

Here comes Russia and Putin’s claim that “our approach is different.” He means that it is not in Russia’s cultural tradition to consider itself exceptional, superior, and God-chosen. Due to her geography and a softer version of Christianity (which relies mostly on the New Testament), Russians do not recognize racial, cultural or civilizational hierarchies and, most importantly, they are not apocalyptically-minded.

Historically they tended to seek peaceful coexistence with different cultures through reconciliation, accommodation and acceptance rather than the annihilation of “savages” and heathens. It’s not that Russians are pacifists or don’t know how to fight. It’s that they see the destruction of foes as a precondition for a political process.

Considering the number of nations and groups operating at cross-purposes in the Middle East, reconciliation looks all but impossible. However, Putin does have an impressive record of pacification and stabilization in the North Caucasus. The man running a prospering Chechnya today is a former “terrorist.”

All sane people willing to live in peace and prosperity here on earth, rather than to fight to the end, should rally around Russia’s efforts to find mutually acceptable arrangements, if only because the alternative is full scale Armageddon.