'Ideas Matter: Why Civilizations Clash' by Jonathan Rick
The Liberal Institute

Ideas Matter: Why Civilizations Clash

“Armies are in motion,” observes Paul Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism (2003), “but are the philosophers and religious leaders, the liberal thinkers, likewise in motion? There is something to worry about here, an aspect of the war that liberal society seems to have trouble understanding—one more worry, on top of all the others, and possibly the greatest worry of all.”[1] That worry is deeply ideological, and as we engage in what Daniel Pipes calls a “cosmic battle over the future course of the human experience,”[2] we ignore it at our peril. Specifically, our so-called war on terror is one of ideas. We still need armies of course, but since culture undergirds politics, in the long run certain ideas, if unchallenged, will only breed more 9/11 kamikazes.

Some say these ideas evince an epochal antipathy between what I will call “political Islam”[3] and the West, a “clash of civilizations” in Samuel Huntington’s formulation, which shapes the essence of their mutual alienation. Yet what is this essence? What is it that we, as Americans, stand for? Who hates what we stand for? And what do they stand for? If the answers have been ambiguous—for one, “terrorism” is a tactic, not an enemy—Berman brings them into focus.

His most useful contribution is his commentary on the philosophy of the Egyptian theologian Sayyid Qutb (1906-66). A member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the prototypical terrorist organization that politicized a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, Qutb violently opposed Gamal Nasser’s secular régime; in return, Nasser imprisoned or executed many members of the brotherhood. But the organization remained active underground, and 35 years later Qutb’s poisonous legacy shot up in four Boeing 767s, by way of a new brotherhood, known as Al Qaeda. (In fact, Qutb’s younger brother Muhammad taught Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia, where one of his students was Osama bin Laden.)

Qutb denunciated all things modern and lamented the dualistic “schizophrenia” of the secular and the sacred. He took greatest umbrage at the separation of church from state. Yet rather than seeking transcendence in a way that would allow both to exist within a larger context, he sought to erase secular life by engulfing life itself in religion. Indeed, his acutest quarrel was not with America’s failure to uphold its principles; his quarrel was with the principles.[4] Scorning our materialism, capitalism, individualism, humanism, rationalism, decadence and moral laxity, Qutb cherished austerity, self-sacrifice, collectivism, faith or feeling above reason or science, and self-denial. In Qutb’s view, the former traits not only induce mental confusion and spiritual corruption; they also graft those sins onto the pure Islamic soul.

But why the sword and not just the pen in response? Why do Qutb’s disciples furiously beat back discotheques and Big Macs in Bali and Iran? Why do they try to stone women to death for adultery in Nigeria? And why did they knock down those “tower[s] of Babel,” in Norman Mailer’s description, in downtown Manhattan?[5] To the Qutbian mentality, anything this-worldly lacks moral value; only a supernatural paradise awash with virgins has meaning. Hence, employing force to achieve one’s ends cannot be immoral. Moreover, as Dinesh D’Souza argues in What’s So Great about America, freedom entails the freedom to choose one’s virtue—to wear a burka on Monday and a miniskirt on Friday. To a Qutbian, such freedom is in fact slavery. And in a world of unending temptations, coercion must accompany, in effect co-opting, the exercise in philosophical cleansing.

And yet, our enemy is not coextensive with any particular religion, like Islam, or any particular region, like the Arab or Muslim world. Rather, the enemy is wider—the enemy is an idea, a political ideology that revolts against the liberal world order. For instance, consider the following passage: “Man is made of mud and ashes. . . . Why are you proud, O mud? Wherefore art thou exalted. . . . O the vile ignobility of human existence! O the ignoble condition of human vileness.”[6] The author is neither Sayyid Qutb nor Osama bin Laden, but Pope Innocent III, who wrote these words in the 12th century. But would Qutb or bin Laden disagree? No, for whether they are American Evangelical Christians living in the Bible Belt, ultraorthodox Jews in the West Bank, or Islamists in Pakistani madrasas, our enemies all merely spin variations on the same basic rejectionism. (The latter are more consistent than their brethren, who have and continue to adapt their beliefs to modernity and its midwife, liberalism.)

To concretize this revolt, recall the image of two passenger jets smashing into the Twin Towers. Explains philosopher Harry Binswanger: “First, observe the target: the World Trade Center. What does the World Trade Center symbolize?. . . . It is the core of Wall Street, which is the base of New York City. New York is the [cultural and economic] dynamo powering America—the so-called Great Satan.” Next, recall “the images of Osama bin Laden and his primitive, bearded barbarians squatting in the dirt around their campfires in Afghanistan.” Now juxtapose that primitivism with the image of a skyscraper, wherein free men and women were hard at work on their computers and cellular phones. The difference: whereas our attackers seek to destroy, Americans seek to develop. For America stands for “individual freedom, the freedom to use one’s independent mind to produce material prosperity, a rising standard of living, and individual happiness on this earth. Freedom, wealth, happiness”—our values are absolute anathema to our enemies.[7]

Is this hyperbole? Do some people really, as President Bush declared, “hate our freedoms”?[8] Heed the words of Ayatollah Khomeini: “We are not afraid of economic sanctions or military intervention. What we are afraid of is Western universities.”[9]

There is just one last problem. “To arrive at a situation in which Nazis have conquered Europe,” Berman writes, “you not only need to have the Nazis themselves, you need to have all the other right-wing movements that look on Nazis in a friendly light, and you need to have left-wing opponents like the anti-war French Socialists, who cannot see that Nazis are Nazis.”[10] Applying this pearl to our new world war, we must recognize that to defend America—to defend Western civilization—we infidels need the proud, moral confidence and certainty of our enemies. We must recognize that our ideas uphold life, that ours is the morality of liberalism and hence liberty. Likewise, we must recognize that our enemies’ ideas uphold death, that theirs is the morality of terror and hence tyranny. As two writers for the Ayn Rand Institute put it, “We cannot combat . . . fanatical faith with timid self-doubt, no matter how many bombs we possess.”[11]

JONATHAN RICK writes for Capitalism Magazine, Free
Radical, and Sense Of Life Objectivists,
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[1] Paul Berman, “The Philosopher of Islamic Terror,” New York Times Magazine, March 23, 2003.

[3] I dislike the term “radical” Islam, since like “extremist” and “fundamentalist,” “radical,” while accurate, lacks explanatory power and misses the point. I also think “radical” is somewhat of a compliment, since as Karl Marx explained, to be “radical” is to grasp things by the root, to examine their origins, to engage in analysis of fundamentals. Daniel Pipes’s formulation of “militant” Islam, while better, is in my view too broad and undistinguishing; to be a terrorist—of any variety—is by definition to be militant. Rather, what binds together those who have, in President Bush’s word, “hijacked” Islam, is their political ideology; hence, “political Islam.” Yes, a political Muslim is not necessarily a terrorist. And, yes, one can hold strictly to the sharia without resorting to force. But what makes a Muslim terrorist a terrorist is that he politicizes his religion.

[6] Pope Innocent III, “On the Misery of Man,” in Bernard Murchland (trans.), Two Views of Man (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1966), pp. 5, 9.

[8] As quoted in Elisabeth Bumiller, “Bush Pledges Attack on Afghanistan unless It Surrenders bin Laden,” New York Times, September 21, 2001.

[9] As quoted in Shaul Bakhash, The Reign of the Ayatollahs: Iran and the Islamic Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1984), p. 122.

[10] Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (New York: Norton, 2003), p. 206.