The Roman Catholic friends Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton were among the few writers in English in the first half of the 20th Century to predict the return of Islamic enthusiasm in the second half of the 20th Century. It’s interesting to evaluate their forecasts. From Belloc’s 1936 work The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed:
… In view of this, anyone with a knowledge of history is bound to ask himself whether we shall not see in the future a revival of Mohammedan political power, and the renewal of the old pressure of Islam upon Christendom.
We have seen how the material political power of Islam declined very rapidly during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We have just followed the story of that decline. When Suleiman the Magnificent was besieging Vienna he had better artillery, better energies and better everything than his opponents; Islam was still in the field the material superior of Christendom – at least it was the superior in fighting power and fighting instruments. That was within a very few years of the opening of the eighteenth century. Then came the inexplicable decline. The religion did not decay, but its political power and with that its material power declined astonishingly, and in the particular business of arms it declined most of all. When Dr. Johnson’s father, the bookseller, was setting up business at Lichfield, the Grand Turk was still dreaded as a potential conqueror of Europe; before Dr. Johnson was dead no Turkish fleet or army could trouble the West. Not a lifetime later, the Mohammedan in North Africa had fallen subject to the French; and those who were then young men lived to see nearly all Mohammedan territory, except for a decaying fragment ruled from Constantinople, firmly subdued by the French and British Governments.
These things being so, the recrudescence of Islam, the possibility of that terror under which we lived for centuries reappearing, and of our civilization again fighting for its life against what was its chief enemy for a thousand years, seems fantastic. Who in the Mohammedan world today can manufacture and maintain the complicated instruments of modern war? Where is the political machinery whereby the religion of Islam can play an equal part in the modern world?
I say the suggestion that Islam may re-arise sounds fantastic – but this is only because men are always powerfully affected by the immediate past: – one might say that they are blinded by it.
Cultures spring from religions; ultimately the vital force which maintains any culture is its philosophy, its attitude toward the universe; the decay of a religion involves the decay of the culture corresponding to it – we see that most clearly in the breakdown of Christendom today. The bad work begun at the Reformation is bearing its final fruit in the dissolution of our ancestral doctrines – the very structure of our society is dissolving.
In the place of the old Christian enthusiasms of Europe there came, for a time, the enthusiasm for nationality, the religion of patriotism. But self-worship is not enough, and the forces which are making for the destruction of our culture, notably the Jewish Communist propaganda from Moscow, have a likelier future before them than our old-fashioned patriotism.
In Islam there has been no such dissolution of ancestral doctrine – or, at any rate, nothing corresponding to the universal break-up of religion in Europe. The whole spiritual strength of Islam is still present in the masses of Syria and Anatolia, of the East Asian mountains, of Arabia, Egypt and North Africa.
The final fruit of this tenacity, the second period of Islamic power, may be delayed: – but I doubt whether it can be permanently postponed.
There is nothing in the Mohammedan civilization itself which is hostile to the development of scientific knowledge or of mechanical aptitude. I have seen some good artillery work in the hands of Mohammedan students of that arm; I have seen some of the best driving and maintenance of mechanical road transport conducted by Mohammedans. There is nothing inherent to Mohammedanism to make it incapable of modern science and modern war.
It’s interesting that Islamic countries, while they improved considerably versus 1936, haven’t gotten much past technological mediocrity over the last 85 years.
Indeed the matter is not worth discussing. It should be self-evident to anyone who has seen the Mohammedan culture at work. That culture happens to have fallen back in material applications; there is no reason whatever why it should not learn its new lesson and become our equal in all those temporal things which now alone give us our superiority over it – whereas in Faith we have fallen inferior to it.
My guess is that Belloc, a literary intellectual, underestimated just how much military power would be depending upon both technical and organizational skills.
On the other hand, he didn’t foresee how rich some Arab states would get from oil. The United States kept secret during the early 1940s just how much oil Saudi Arabia had. Oil geologist Lee DeGolyer’s 1944 report to FDR explained that the oil of Saudi Arabia was the greatest prize in world history.
People who question this may be misled by a number of false suggestions dating from the immediate past. For instance, it was a common saying during the nineteenth century that Mohammedanism had lost its political power through its doctrine of fatalism. But that doctrine was in full vigour when the Mohammedan power was at its height. For that matter Mohammedanism is no more fatalist than Calvinism; the two heresies resemble each other exactly in their exaggerated insistence upon the immutability of Divine decrees.
There was another more intelligent suggestion made in the nineteenth century, which was this: that the decline of Islam had proceeded from its fatal habit of perpetual civil division: the splitting up and changeability of political authority among the Mohammedans. But that weakness of theirs was present from the beginning; it is inherent in the very nature of the Arabian temperament from which they started. Over and over again this individualism of theirs, this “fissiparous” tendency of theirs, has gravely weakened them; yet over and over again they have suddenly united under a leader and accomplished the greatest things.
In the 1960s, it seemed as if Nasser of Egypt might be this man. But he lost in 1967.
Now it is probable enough that on these lines – unity under a leader – the return of Islam may arrive. There is no leader as yet, but enthusiasm might bring one and there are signs enough in the political heavens today of what we may have to expect from the revolt of Islam at some future date – perhaps not far distant.
After the Great War the Turkish power was suddenly restored by one such man.
Another such man in Arabia, with equal suddenness, affirmed himself and destroyed all the plans laid for the incorporation of that part of the Mohammedan world into the English sphere.
History often turns upon unexpected personalities. The West has been fairly lucky that no outstanding man has arisen in Islamic world. Since 1936, probably the two most remarkable personalities have been Nasser, who was more of a Bonapartist modernizer demagogue than an Islamist, and the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Syria, which is the connecting link, the hinge and the pivot of the whole Mohammedan world, is, upon the map, and superficially, divided between an English and a French mandate; but the two Powers intrigue one against the other and are equally detested by their Mohammedan subjects, who are only kept down precariously by force. There has been bloodshed under the French mandate more than once and it will be renewed while under the English mandate the forcing of an alien Jewish colony upon Palestine has raised the animosity of the native Arab population to white heat.
Meanwhile a ubiquitous underground Bolshevist propaganda is working throughout Syria and North Africa continually, against the domination of Europeans over the original Mohammedan population.
Lastly there is this further point to which attention should be paid: the attachment (such as it is) of the Mohammedan world in India to English rule is founded mainly upon the gulf between the Mohammedan and Hindu religions. Every step towards a larger political independence for either party strengthens the Mohammedan desire for renewed power. The Indian Mohammedan will more and more tend to say: “If I am to look after myself and not to be favoured as I have been in the past by the alien European master in India – which I once ruled – I will rely upon the revival of Islam.” For all these reasons (and many more might be added) men of foresight may justly apprehend, or at any rate expect, the return of Islam.
In other words, Pakistan, which now has nuclear weapons.
In general, forecasting is hard, especially about the future. So this is not at all bad as a forecast.