A holy and explosive alliance

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THE UN Conference on Population and Development, due to open in Cairo on 5 September, is the most important world conference ever. It is also, by no coincidence, the most contentious; so contentious as to involve serious security risks for the host country, Egypt. Finally, this conference will embody the greatest ideological debate in the world today: between those who hold values derived from the Enlightenment, and believers in supernaturally revealed certainties. The principal challenge to the Enlightenment, both at the conference and in its wake, will be posed by the emerging alliance between official Catholicism and fundamentalist Islam.

The importance of the Cairo conference is that it represents the first serious attempt to grapple with the greatest of human problems: the population explosion. One needs to be careful about how to formulate that problem. This can hardly be done without statistics, yet population statistics have a tendency to numb the mind, actually deflecting attention from the problem.

Here I shall cite one single figure, letting it stand for the rest. If present trends continue, the population of the 'less developed world' will have doubled in 36 years. If one considers what conditions are already like in the Third World, that opens up a truly hellish prospect. Throughout the Third World the multiplication of short, hopeless lives is an explosion of misery that takes multiple forms, including the violent collisions and contentions of Somalia and Rwanda.

For more than 12 crucial years - throughout the Reagan and Bush presidencies - efforts to secure an internationally supported programme for reducing the growth of population were held in check by the influence of the United States, generally supportive of the Vatican's determined abstraction on this whole range of issues. The US position reflected the influence of the Pro-Life lobby over the Republican Party. Analysis of 1992 elections suggests however, that Pro- Choice voters are a lot more numerous in America, if less noisy. This being so, the Clinton Administration has thrown its weight in preparatory discussions for the Cairo conference behind the Pro-Choice agenda, based on greatly increased availability of contraception and safe abortion in the regions most in need of these.

This reversal of the US position has caused consternation in the Vatican, always unconditionally committed to the Genesis 'imperative' to increase and multiply, confirmed as fully applicable to modern conditions in the encyclical Mater et Magistra (1961) and in all subsequent papal documents.

To save what can be saved at Cairo, and after Cairo, the Vatican has been busy contructing a new holy alliance, in which the Vatican's principal ally is to be fundamentalist Islam. As far as that alliance is concerned the Vatican's missions to Tehran and Tripoli, publicised this month, are only the tip of the iceberg. We may be sure that Vatican overtures on the eve of Cairo have been made, and received with discretion, in other capitals. Saudia Arabia is an extremely important potential ally, and has links, not to be despised, with Islamic fundamentalists in Cairo, as well as in Algeria, where a secular authority is now tottering.

By the force of values held in common, the Vatican has now a vested interest in fundamentalist revolutions throughout the Muslim world, as well as in a Hindu revolution in an India under the increasingly shaky control of secular politicians. The Vatican cannot make such revolutions happen, but it can help to make them more acceptable when they have happened. The Vatican can also help the Islamic fundamentalists in other ways - for example, in making the fatwa against Salman Rushdie more 'understandable' in as many Western eyes as the Vatican can influence.

But the area in which Vatican influence is being most helpful to fundamentalist Islam now is the Cairo conference itself. Indeed, in that respect, the Vatican may find some of its new allies increasingly embarrassing. The Egyptian government, when it agreed to host the Cairo conference, probably did not realise how controversial that conference was going to get, primarily as a result of the recent American shift to Pro-Choice. Vatican propaganda, by highlighting the controversial nature of the Cairo agenda (as approved in New York), and especially by focusing attention on its anti-Islamic character, has made the conference a potential rallying-point for the numerous enemies of the Mubarak government. These include not only fundamentalist regimes but also the 'secular' Baathist regimes in Damascus and Baghdad, which repress fundamentalism at home, but are capable of encouraging it abroad to hurt an enemy. The Cairo conference must by now be a headache for Egyptian security. After all, the kind of Islamic fundamentalists who killed Anwar Sadat also want to kill Hosni Mubarak.

In the effort to repeal the Enlightenment, the Vatican is being increasingly drawn into an attitude of antagonism to the principal centre of diffusion of Enlightenment values: the capitalist West. This attitude was already discernible, but in a fairly mild degree, under the Reagan and Bush presidencies. In its attempt to fight contraception and abortion, the Vatican has taken, under this Pope, a demagogic line: 'It is not the so-called population explosion that is at the root of the trouble. Not at all. It is solely selfish exploitation by capitalists of the resources of the Third World.' That tune goes down well with Third World governments (fundamentalist or secular) and it is likely to be heard in Cairo more loudly than ever before, now that President Clinton is the Vatican's Enemy No 1 over contraception and abortion. (Unless Clinton backs away at Cairo, as he will be under some pressure to do, as the mid-term Congressional elections loom. But then an attempt to back away would hurt him, too.)

Under John Paul II, the Vatican now looks set to replace the Kremlin as the principal encourager of a world revolution against Western values. There are certainly many in the Catholic Church in the West, and there must be some even in the Vatican itself, who are unhappy about the revolutionary implications of the worldwide papal campaign to repeal the Enlightenment. But I fear that campaign will continue, at least for the duration of the present pontificate.

(Photograph omitted)