At a certain point in the 1980s I found myself in Lebanon, visiting the communities that were striving to survive in the face of Hafiz al-Assad’s brutal attempt to create a Greater Syria.
My experiences there awoke me to two vital truths about the world in which we live.
The first is that you do not create boundaries by drawing lines on the map, as the French and British had done at the end of the First World War. Boundaries arise through the emergence of national identities, which in turn require that religious obedience take second place to the feeling for home, territory and settlement. Moreover, as the example of Lebanon in so many ways illustrates, democracy will always be jeopardized in places where identities are confessional rather than territorial.
The second truth impressed on me was that, for the very reason that Islam puts religion above nationality as the test of membership, Islamism poses a threat to political order. This is particularly true of the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood and its erstwhile leader Sayyid Qutb, for whom, in the contest between the shar‘iah and the modern world, it is the modern world that must go.
In response to the Lebanese tragedy I wrote a short book –A Land Held Hostage –in which I pleaded for the old Lebanese order. I defended the Lebanese constitution, which had been designed to foster a shared national identity that would stand above the confessional identities that divide village from village and neighbour from neighbour all across the land that they share. And I warned against the ambitions of Hezbollah, the ‘Party of God’, which was attempting to establish a regional Shi‘ite power network, under the aegis of Syria and Iran.
The conflict between Sunni and Shi‘a has now come to dominate the region, and my futile plea on behalf of the old Lebanon counted for nothing. But this experience taught me that our civilization cannot survive if we continue to appease the Islamists. I later argued the point in The West and the Rest , a book published in 2002, in response to the atrocities of 9/11; in writing it I came to see that, precious though national boundaries are, yet more precious is the civilization that has made national boundaries perceivable.”