Dear Concerned Citizen,
What stands out about the Islamic militant’s critique of America is its refreshing clarity. Painful though it is to admit, they aren’t entirely wrong. They charge that America is a society obsessed with material gain, and who will deny this? They condemn the West as an atheistic civilization, and while they may be wrong about the extent of religious belief and practice, they are right that in the West religion has little sway over the public arena, and the West seems to have generated more unbelief than any other civilization in world history. They are disgusted by our culture, and we have to acknowledge that there is a good deal in American culture that is disgusting to normal sensibilities. The Islamic militants fear that the idea of America is taking over their young people, breaking down allegiances to parents and religion and traditional community; this concern on their part is also justified.
The most important and influential of the Islamic critics of the West is the philosopher Sayyid Qutb. Born in Egypt in 1906, Qutb became disenchanted with Arab nationalism as a weapon against Western imperialism. He became a leader and theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist organization that is also one of the oldest institutions of radical Islam. Qutb insists, the institutions of the West are antithetical to Islam. The West is a society based on freedom whereas Islam is a society based on virtue. Moreover, in Qutb’s view, Western institutions are fundamentally atheistic: they are based on a clear rejection of divine authority. When democrats say that sovereignty and political authority are ultimately derived from the people, this means that the people and not God are the rulers. So to Qutb democracy is a form of idol worship.
Here in short is the fundamentalist argument. The Koran promises that if Muslims are faithful to Allah, they will enjoy prosperity in this life and paradise in the next life. According to the Islamic militants, Muslims were doing this for centuries, and they were invincible. But now, the Islamic militants point out, Islam is not winning any more; in fact, it is losing. What could be the reason for this? From the Islamic militant point of view, the answer is obvious: Muslims are not following the true teaching of Allah! The Islamic militants allege that Muslims have fallen away from the true faith and are mindlessly pursuing the ways of the infidel. The Islamic militants also charge that Islamic countries are now ruled by self-serving despots who serve as puppets for America and the West. The solution, the Islamic militants say, is to purge American troops and Western influence from the Middle East; to overthrow corrupt, pro-Western regimes like the ones in Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia; and to return to the pure, original teachings of the Koran. Only then, the Islamic militants insist, can Islam recover its lost glory.
One can see, from this portrait, that the Islamic militants are a humiliated people who are seeking to recover ancestral greatness. They are not “losers”: they are driven by a belief in their moral superiority, combined with political, economic, and military inferiority. Their argument has a powerful appeal to proud Muslims who find it hard to come to terms with their contemporary irrelevance. And so the desert wind of fundamentalism has spread throughout the Middle East. It has replaced Arab nationalism as the most powerful political force in the region.
The Islamic world faces a formidable threat from the United States. America stands for an idea that is fully capable of transforming the Islamic world by winning the hearts of Muslims. The subversive American idea is one of shaping your own life, of making your own destiny, of following a path illumined not by external authorities but by your inner self. This American idea endangers the sanctity of the Muslim home, as well as the authority of Islamic society. It empowers women and children to assert their prerogatives against the male head of the household. It also undermines political and religious hierarchies. Of all American ideas, the “inner voice” is the most dangerous because it rivals the voice of Allah as a source of moral allegiance. So Islam is indeed, as bin Laden warned, facing the greatest threat to its survival since the days of Muhammad.
The success of the Islamic militants in the Muslim world should not blind us from recognizing that their counterattack against America and the West is fundamentally defensive. The Islamic militants know that their civilization does not have the appeal to expand outside its precinct. It’s not as if the Muslims were plotting to take, say Australia. It is the West that is making incursions into Islamic territory, winning converts and threatening to subvert ancient loyalties and transform a very old way of life.
So the Islamic militants are lashing out against this new, largely secular, Western “crusade.” Terrorism, their weapon of counterinsurgency, is the weapon of the weak. Terrorism is the international equivalent of the domestic weapon of discontent: the riot. Political scientist Edward Banfield once observed that a riot is a failed revolution. People who know how to take over the government don’t throw stones at a bus. Similarly terrorism of the bin Laden variety is a desperate strike against a civilization that the Islamic militants know they have no power to conquer.
Today, even though colonialism has ended, the Islamic world is in a miserable state. Basically all that it has to offer is oil, and as technology opens up alternative sources of energy, even that will not amount to much. Without its oil revenues, the Islamic world will find itself in the position of sub-Saharan Africa. When is the last time you opened the newspaper to read about a great Islamic discovery or invention? While China and India, two other empires that were eclipsed by the West, have embraced Western technology and even assumed a leadership role in some areas, Islam’s contribution to modern science and technology is negligible.
In recent decades, a great debate has broken out in the Muslim world to account for the Islamic decline and to formulate a response to it. One response—let us call it the reformist or classical liberal response—is to acknowledge that the Islamic world has been left behind by modernity. The reformers’ solution is to embrace science, democracy, and capitalism. This would mean adaptation-at least selective adaptation-to the ways of the West. The liberal reformers have an honorable intellectual tradition, associated with such names as Muhammad Abduh, Jamal al-Afghani, Muhammad Iqbal, and Taha Husayn. This group also enjoys a fairly strong base of support in the Muslim middle class. In the past two decades however, the reformers have been losing the argument in the Islamic world to their rival group the Islamic militants.
The bin Ladens of the world are waging a two-front war: against Western influence in the Middle East and against pro-Western governments and liberal influences within the Islamic world. It is not just “the West” against “Islam.” It is also a clash of civilizations within the Muslim world. One side or the other will prevail.
So what should American policy be toward the region?
We should not be unrealistic and insist that Islamic countries adopt the equivalent of America’s strict non-establishment clause in our constitution which prohibits any government involvement in religion. But it is indispensable that Islamic leaders and militants relinquish the use of force for the purpose of spreading Islam. They, too, should appeal to consent.
If this seems like a ridiculous thing to ask of Muslims, let us remember that millions of Muslims are already living this way. These are, of course, the Muslim immigrants to Europe and the US. They are showing the way for Islam to change in the same way that Christianity changed in order to survive and flourish in the modern world.