Consider this critique of modern Western culture:
“Any objectives other than the immediate utilitarian ones are by-passed, and any human element other than ego is not recognized. While the whole of life is dominated by such materialism, there is no scope for laws beyond provisions for labor and production.”
Ted Hughes or Jimmy Carter might have written that. Any number of best-selling pop psychologists could sign off on it.
But it wasn’t any of them. The quote is from the works of Sayyid Qutb, the mid-20th century Egyptian scholar who profoundly influenced Osama Bin Laden. Karen Armstrong calls him “the founder of Sunni fundamentalism.”
We should study the critiques of the intellectual founders of modern Islamist fundamentalism. Because, while a terrorist with a bomb pack may be beyond argument, the tradition that breeds him is based on sane, if twisted or imperfect, views of man and God and life.
Bin Laden is not much of an original thinker. He cribs from Qutb, who himself was influenced by Pakistani Abul Ala Mawdudi, who espoused a militant vision of Islam centered on jihad against Western influences.
These men were not cave-dwellers, ignorant of the wider world. As a young man, Qutb was enamored of English literature. He was educated in modern reason and science, and for many years he reconciled his deep Muslim faith with his enthusiasm for secular politics and Western culture. But he was disillusioned in the ’40s by British and French colonialism in North Africa and the Middle East, and by the rise of Zionism. A period of study in the U.S. deepened his disillusionment, which was completed by a spell in prison under Nasser.
As a result, his thinking and writing reached the point where he identified the West (and the corrupted though nominally Islamic Middle Eastern regimes) with the jahili (“ignorant”) pagan societies of Mecca that Muhammad had fought in a death-battle. Much of the Quran is a call to battle against these forces. It is the Muslim’s ultimate duty, if the Quran is read without a sense of its historical context. Between Mawdudi and Qutb, on the one hand, and the terror-killers of 9/11 is just a short step. Bin Laden happened to fill it; others could have done as much.
Who will answer the critique these men leveled against the secular West? This ought to be the work of our universities, where the finest products of Western culture traditionally concentrate. But these have been taken over by an anti-Western spirit that values only the questioning and doubting qualities of modern humanism, without its essential faiths and creative, positive belief in itself. Today, if you want a vituperative screed against Western literature, science, politics, culture, and values, you go to a university. Where do you go for a defense of them?
In fact, a major challenge in the Islamist intellectual and spiritual critique of the West is that much of it is echoed in the West.
“Humanity today is living in a large brothel! One has only to glance at its press, films, fashion shows, beauty contests, ballrooms, wine bars, and broadcasting stations! Or observe its mad lust for naked flesh, provocative postures, and sick, suggestive statements in literature, the arts and the mass media! And add to all this, the system of usury which fuels man’s voracity for money and engenders vile methods for its accumulation and investment, in addition to fraud, trickery, and blackmail dressed up in the garb of law.”
Qutb again. Billy Graham could sign on to the first half of that. Michael Moore would agree with the economic critique. A liberal Mennonite probably would approve of both.
The conservative American thinker Dinesh D’Souza had an interesting piece in the San Francisco Chronicle a while back about this third front in the battle against Islamist extremism. He sees that, like the Jesuits of old, the modern defenders of Western culture can concede much, and still triumph in their debates.
Let us concede at the outset that freedom will often be used badly in a free society. Freedom by definition includes freedom to do good or evil, to act nobly or basely. Given the warped timber of humanity, freedom becomes the forum for the expression of human flaws and weaknesses. On this point, Qutb and his fundamentalist followers are quite correct.
But if freedom brings out the worst in people, it also brings out the best. The millions of Americans who live decent, praiseworthy lives deserve our highest admiration because they have opted for the good when the good is not the only available option. Even amid the temptations that a rich and free society offers, they have remained on the straight path. Their virtue has special luster because it is freely chosen.
By contrast, the theocratic and authoritarian society that Islamic fundamentalists advocate undermines the possibility of virtue. If the supply of virtue is insufficient in free societies, it is almost nonexistent in Islamic societies because coerced virtues are not virtues at all.
Which is quite as true of non-Islamic societies where the law governs all human behaviors. The historian William H. Prescott, in 1847, after describing such a society in the Inca empire, wrote, “Where there is no free agency, there can be no morality. Where there is no temptation, there can be little claim to virtue. Where the routine is rigorously proscribed by law, the law, and not the man, must have the credit of the conduct.”
Reports from Fallujah when the fundamentalists ran the city told of barbaric cruelties committed by the jihadis. As the Greeks discovered to their dismay, the coerced virtues of the Spartans fell apart utterly when they became masters in other lands.
D’Souza doesn’t say so in as many words, but he suggests the argument could be carried forth by the people of faith in the West.
This is the argument that Americans should make to people in the Islamic world. It is a mistake to presume that Muslims would be totally unreceptive to it. Islam, which has common roots with Judaism and Christianity, respects the autonomy of the individual soul. Salvation for Muslims, no less than for Jews and Christians, is based on the soul choosing freely to follow God.
We can make the case to Muslims that freedom is not a secular invention. Rather, freedom is a gift from God.
It might work. And gods know you’re not going to hear that argument out of the universities.