“Know thy enemy,” said Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese military strategist of the 6th century B.C. Wise words, indeed, and we need to apply them toward the Islamist enemies we face today. What is it that motivates their fanaticism, their worldview, their hatred of the West? There are several factors, but there is one that is primary. It is the ideology of Islam. Since it is ideology that is the main determinant of history, this is where we must start if we are to “know our enemy.”
Islamic cultures today differ from those in the West quite drastically, which is certainly in itself not a bad thing. The diversity of cultures is part of the majesty of human civilization. But only if those differences are sane and peaceful. Is Islamic culture sane and peaceful? Let’s find out.
Wise men and women realize early in life that what socio-political systems we end up with are largely due to the level of rationality that our top intellectuals embrace. For example, America became the greatest nation in history because her intellectuals of the 18th century were brilliant students of reason and history. And they enshrined a constitutional vision of “strictly limited government” that created a free and prosperous way of life that had never before been approached by mankind. It lasted for about 125 years until 1913 when the “progressive intellectuals” of the day began to subvert it. But for one brief moment in history, as Ayn Rand put it, there was a Camelot on this earth.
Our departure from reason is destroying us today. Unfortunately starting around the 11th century, Islam’s leading scholars began this process also. They brought about a fateful departure of Islam from the Hellenistic emphasis on reason as one of man’s prime tools to decipher reality, truth, and goodness, etc. Islam’s most important thinkers abandoned all respect for rational thought. The inexplicable “will of Allah” became the fount of all that happens. Herein lies the profound root of Islam’s tragic fate today.
In a contentious debate over the role that reason plays, Muslim scholars of that era swung the pendulum away from Greek rationalism, which destroyed any hope for their cultures to advance scientifically and technologically. Western scholars embraced Greek rationalism and as a result life in the West took off; but life in Islamic lands began a 900 year descent into backwardness. Consequently today’s Islamic societies wallow in primitivism. Science has been warped into an elusive, distrustful power; many of their intellectuals consider science to be blasphemy against Allah.
The Closing of the Muslim Mind
In his provocative book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, Robert R. Reilly explains this tragedy and all the baneful implications that have unfolded from it. Muslim modernity has become an impossibility because of Islam’s rejection of what is termed, in the West, man’s God given reason. In the minds of Muslims, life is not a cooperative venture between God and man; it is a predestined stage play that Allah has willed absolutely. “Inshallah” (if God wills it) has become the standard theme of discourse in Mideast countries. Natural law is dismissed, cause and effect are illusions, all human actions and all of life’s events are a product of Allah’s will. There is no free individual will and thus no individual responsibility other than obedience to the Koran. Humans can know nothing about morality and must subject themselves without question to Allah’s commandments.
This tragedy, Reilly tells us, came about as a result of two opposing schools of theological thought that predominated in the infancy of Islam between the 9th century and the 11th century. These two schools were the rationalist Mu‘tazalites and the literalist Ash‘arites.
The Mu‘tazalites maintained that the Koran was created at the moment in time of its revelation by Allah and was meant to be interpreted by human beings using reason. It was to be applied via jurisprudence to society and adapted to the needs of propriety and justice as discerned by logical thought. Man possessed free will and must exercise it. Aristotelian wisdom was integral to the Mu‘tazalite school.
The Ash‘arites maintained that the Koran was not created, that it existed infinitely with Allah. It was not meant to be “interpreted” by human minds; this was blasphemy. The Koran’s doctrinal dictates must be taken literally and applied thusly to Muslim societies. Reason was a tool of corruption because it assumed that man could discern right and wrong with his mind. This led to questioning the will of Allah, which destroyed his omnipotence. Philosophy was a deceptive maze of word games conjured by sinful man so as to stray from absolute allegiance to Allah.
Because the Ash‘arites won this debate, Islamic culture turned away from the Hellenistic influence that had built it into a first class civilization between 800 A.D. and 1100 A.D. Philosophy was denounced and exiled from the arena of scholarly endeavor. Learning the convoluted dogmas of the Koran became the sole purpose of theologians. Jurisprudence became frozen in the stultification of theological minutia and authoritarianism.
This fateful adoption of Ash‘arite literalism led to the rejection of all the requisites of civilizational progress (individual freedom, objective morality, science, causality, critical thinking, equality of rights, etc.) that took hold gradually in the West to build its cultures. Such is the root of Islam’s primitivism today.
Islamism Is the Enemy
From this cultural backwardness has sprung a pervasive bitterness and humiliation among Muslims, which in turn has spawned radical “Islamism.” The intellectual leaders of Islamism play to Muslim bitterness by preaching the need to restore the original Islamic glory via Jihad, terrorism, and world conquest in somewhat the same manner that Hitler preached the glory of Germanic conquest over Europe as a salve for the humiliating defeat of Germany in World War I. It’s important to note, however, that Islamism is just the fundamentalist part of Islam. As Reilly points out, most Muslims “find terrorism morally repugnant and alien to Islam’s core teachings.” But Islamist terrorism still has a dreadful appeal to growing cults of bitter minds conditioned from birth to believe that “reason” is impotent and “will” (with its concomitant of force) all-important.
Hatred of the West then is primarily Islamist hatred. All Muslims disapprove of the Western way of life because of its emphatic materialism, but the virulence of Islamism does not contaminate the majority of them. Virulent hatred saturates extremist, fundamentalist Muslims who have fashioned a cause of Jihad and world conquest in order to assuage their feelings of humiliation and bitterness over the backwardness of Islamic culture in the modern world.
Because of the prevalence of their anti-rational worldview, Islamic countries have thus been reduced to manipulation by clever authoritarians who master the doctrines of Koranic tradition persuasively enough to get control of their respective governments. Since critical thinking is scorned, the people end up tolerating puritanical customs in the process that are often primitive. Life is backward and holds no hope for change until a reawakening of reason, philosophy, and free will can take place.
Thankfully there are growing numbers of scholars who are trying to change Islam’s direction. Thinkers such as Tunisian-born Latif Lakhdar, Dr. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd of Egypt, and numerous others reject the radical anti-reason approach to the Islamic religion and are working to alter its fatal destructiveness and restore Islam to that way of thinking when it was a high civilization, when it kept alive the wisdom of Greek rationalism during the Dark Ages. But for the time being the Islamic mindset is an enemy to the West.
Robert Reilly’s The Closing of the Muslim Mind brilliantly explains the mystifying intellectual reasons for modern Islamic Jihad and the dark, impotent cultures that prevail throughout the Mideast. If we in America are to know this enemy, then we must grasp what the ideological roots of it are. Robert Reilly’s book is a great place to start.
Nelson Hultberg is a freelance writer in Dallas, Texas and the Director of Americans for a Free Republic www.afr.org. A graduate of Beloit College in Wisconsin, his articles have appeared in such publications as The American Conservative, Insight, Liberty, The Freeman, The Social Critic, The Dallas Morning News, and the San Antonio Express-News, as well as on numerous Internet sites.
He is the author of The Golden Mean: Libertarian Politics, Conservative Values
Email: NelsonHultberg (at) afr.org