Walter Russell Mead had an interesting post this past weekend about Israeli cabinet minister Uri Ariel’s call for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. Ariel (left) has a reputation as a provocateur, and it’s hard to take his demand at face value. Rebuilding the Temple would require demolition of two famous Muslim shrines, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, both dating from the Arab conquest. One can’t imagine any responsible Israeli government undertaking such an operation, for reasons that are obvious. In real-world political terms, one should probably understand Ariel’s comments as a a bit of rhetoric meant to encourage the settler movement and discomfit their adversaries.
As Mead points out, however, hundreds of millions of people around the world will not see Ariel’s demand in real-world political terms. They will see it in end-times political terms. According to the “end-times theology” endorsed by many Evangelicals in the US and abroad, the Apocalypse awaits the re-establishment of the Jewish state and reconstruction of the Temple. This theology explains much Evangelical support for Israel in the US and elsewhere. Here’s Mead:
Any sign that the Temple issue is moving to the fore in Israeli politics today will engage the attention of evangelical and Pentecostal Protestants around the world. In Africa, Brazil, the United States and many other places, this news, combined with the stories about unrest in the Arab world, will be read as a sign that the End Times are approaching and that God is at work.
This is all familiar to students of contemporary Christianity. But Mead points out that there are Muslim end-times theologies too:
In Islam as in Christianity, many strains of apocalyptic thinking see the End Times as an era of apostasy and rebellion against God, of the forces of evil assembling themselves for one last battle against God and true religion. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the bitter war between Sunnis and Shiites that now embraces the entire Fertile Crescent, and what will be seen by many as evidence that Israel is preparing to restore the Temple on a site holy to Islam: these developments will further strengthen apocalyptic, End Times thinking in the Muslim world.
In other words, although Ariel’s demand may not count for much in Israeli politics, it will reinforce the end-times theologies of hundreds of millions of Christians and Muslims around the world. And that could be very significant. Let’s say only ten percent of people who believe in end-times theologies take Ariel seriously. That amounts to tens of millions of people. These tens of millions are not likely to support compromise in the Middle East. Quite the opposite: they are likely to push their governments to take hard-line positions in the conflict. Even apart from the Arab-Israeli conflict, the belief that Armageddon is near may intensify hostilities and make peaceful coexistence less likely elsewhere–between Christians and Muslims in Africa, for example. What seems an insignificant, provocative remark by a fairly obscure politician may have ramifications far beyond Israel’s borders.