Andrew McCarthy’s book depicts the incompatibility of the political agenda of Islamist ideology and the values of our Western liberal tradition
One year ago, in January of 2015, Muslim terrorists, crowing about vengeance for the prophet Mohammed, attacked the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The rampage was the kick-off for a three-day jihadist assault which would stretch across the city, including in a kosher market, leaving 17 innocents dead.
I should, because I can, be more precise. They were not simply Muslim terrorists, though they were, by their own testimony, that. Better: they were radical Muslim terrorists; or, better still: they were radical Islamist terrorists. The qualifier Islamist, conveys that brand of fanatical thought which insists Islam is much more than merely a faith that shapes personal piety but is an organizing principle encompassing all ethical, economic, political, and social activity. For the Islamist, Islam is a totalizing system that governs every bit of life – all of it, for everybody, believer and non-believer — and those who don’t agree to this are to be subdued, to the nth degree. This fundamental strain of political Islam is adhered to by such as Boko Haram, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, and ISIS.
But why, did I suggest that because I can be more precise, I should be? Because I am a product of the Western liberal tradition and traditions such as this insist that words matter, that nuance is important because it is correct, morally so, to use words with precision, because truth is essential — even difficult truth — and to describe a thing is make, even if a tentative one, a truth claim about that thing. To leave out essential detail is to leave out elements of truth. So, because there is a distinction between a person who is a Muslim and another who is an Islamist, we ought, when we know the distinction is operative, to render it. Such charitable allowances are precisely the kind of things not rendered by those who gallivant across Paris gunning down cartoonists and Jewish shoppers.
This is part of the point of Andrew McCarthy’s short and excellent Islam and Free Speech. Beginning with a reflection on the Charlie Hebdo rampage, McCarthy takes stock of the political agenda of the Islamist ideology. Most crucially, he compares this agenda to the values of the Western liberal tradition and cautions that the Islamists are playing these values to their own advantage. The Islamists, noting “the incompatibility between Islamic law and democracy’s secular, pluralistic underpinnings”, are committed to the supplanting of democracy. But they also acknowledge “that this conquest will require a strategy more suited to a determined minority that knows it cannot win by force of arms alone.” Their solution is dawa — proselytism; which, in the hands of the radicals is virulent, “pushing on every cultural cylinder, pressuring every institution, and exploiting the atmosphere of intimidation created by jihadist terrorism to blur the lines between legal advocacy and extortion.”
While freedom of speech is essential to Western liberalism, even Western liberals are rightly repulsed by speech that is intentionally offensive. “One who passionately argues,” McCarthy writes, “that it would be perilously wrong to criminalize, say, flag burning or the exhibition of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christcan sympathize with calls to discourage their display — privately, non-threateningly, and within the bounds of law.” Just so. But from that benign premise it is a short leap to the more malignant conclusion that it might be time to compel — through force of law — an outright ban on insults to Islam.
This is already taking place in much of Europe. France, for example, is enmeshed in multilateral, and occasionally Orwellian, treaties as the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As McCarthy warns, such legal commitments pay lip service to freedom of expression but increasingly direct member states to enact fuzzy laws criminalizing the dissemination of ideas that could be an incitement to hostility. With such notions in the background, many suggested that the real culprits behind the Charlie Hebdo rampage were the victims – who drew the slanderous images of Mohammed in the first place — they incited the hostility. Shamefully, our own president has been party to such inanity — such as when he blamed the Benghazi siege on a trailer for an anti-Islamic film.
But, McCarthy insists, to focus on reprisals to intentional provocation is to miss a larger, far more dangerous point and thereby to minimize the Islamist threat. This is because the kind of free expression the Islamist seeks to suppress “far transcends Charlie Hebdo-style effrontery”. These include such fundamentals of critical thinking as challenging scholarly consensus or critical examinations of Islam — especially that result in negative conclusions or encourage unbelief; and include such fundamentals of the free exchange of ideas such as debate or even proselytism, especially if it leads to or encourages the abandonment of Islam. “In sum,” the Islamists prohibit any expression that “could sow discord among Muslims or within an Islamic community.” So much for Western liberalism.
And that’s just it. Western liberalism is infatuated with the idea of the assimilation of all cultures. At our best it is what has given us our conceptual depth, cultural beauty, and civilizational mettle. One mustn’t overemphasis this point but it is no accident that Western liberalism is a product of a Greco-Roman as well as well as a Judeo-Christian patrimony, a primary patriarch of which is a man named Israel. Famously, Israel means “to struggle with God.” The very stuff in which Western civilization is grounded welcomes contention. This is because God loves. And because God loves He desires that we, too, shall love Him. But love must be free or it is not love. Freedom of course has risks — one of which is rebellion. And yet God beckoned us to be free.
Not so the god of the Islamists, in whose totalizing ideology is found the full meaning of Islam — submission — to its nth degree. Always. For everyone. Thus, as McCarthy contends, we beckon our own demise if we believe the Islamist can be accommodated. They cannot be. They do not intend to be.