"Grub first, morality later" — Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral. The grim, cynical materialism of Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera no longer shocks us as it once did, because it has become the unspoken but universal assumption of public and private conduct in the 21st century. By a kind of Gresham's Law, bad morality drives out good. And so the ethics of the gutter are now established in the penthouses of the rich and powerful.
One consequence of this debasing of the moral currency is that the distinction between civilisation and barbarism has become obscured or even abandoned altogether. Modern barbarism comes in many forms: from Diana Mosley interrupting her dinner party to call for a moment's silence in memory of Julius Streicher, recalled by Raymond Carr in his Dialogue with Nicholas Mosley, to the French Islamist gang portrayed in Nidra Poller's Dispatch from Paris, who tortured a young Jew to death and actually called themselves "the Barbarians".
It is dangerous when the leaders of Western civilisation suppose that they can deal with the barbarians by offering the right mixture of flattery, bribery and contrition. President Barack Obama's Cairo speech laid on all three and even went as far as to engage in comparative exegesis of the Koran and the Bible. The ovation he received was impressive.
Compare, though, the considered response of Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradhawi, the most influential Sunni scholar alive today — and a favoured guest of the former London Mayor Ken Livingstone. Qaradhawi dismissed Obama's insistence that the Koran and the Torah (Pentateuch) both call for peace thus: "Never have I seen a single verse, paragraph or sentence in the Torah which calls for peace. Everything in the Torah constitutes a call for war...This is a biblical notion — annihilate them totally, do not leave a living soul among them." Accusing Obama of pulling troops out of Iraq only to send them into another war against Muslims in Afghanistan, Qaradhawi is clearly unwilling to unclench his fist just yet.