Do not go into a war of ideas until you understand the ideas you are at war with. A war of ideas is a struggle over the very nature of reality for which people are willing to die. Such wars are conducted in terms of moral legitimacy. The defense of one’s ideas and the attack on those of the enemy must be conducted with moral rhetoric. “Axis of evil” is a perfect example, as is “the great Satan.” All moral differences are at root theological.
In this particular war, the character of the enemy is defined by a new term, Islamism, as distinct from Islam. Like all “ism”s, this term indicates a transmogrification of reality. Islamism is the ideologization of Islam. Drawing on several of the many strands of Islamic tradition (Kharijites, Asharites, al-Ghazali, etc.), radical Islamists reduce God to his omnipotence, concentrating exclusively on His unlimited power, as against His reason. God’s “reasons” are unknowable by man. God rules as He pleases. There is no rational order invested in the universe upon which one can rely, only the second-to-second manifestation of God’s will. This view results in anti-rationalism which, in turn, produces irrational behavior.
For these theological reasons, radical Islamist fundamentalists reject the relationship of cause and effect. This denial has undermined the foundations of modern science and aborted the development of natural law thinking that is necessary for constitutional, democratic government. It is the principal reason that parts of the Islamic world have become a backwater. Several years ago, an Imam in Pakistan instructed physicists there that they could not consider the principle of cause and effect in their work. Many people in the Muslim world who still refuse to believe men have been to the moon do so not because they are ignorant, but because it is theologically unacceptable to them.
Radical Islamists translate their version of God’s omnipotence into a politics of unlimited power. As God’s instruments, they are channels for this power. The primacy of force, on which their endeavor is based, necessitates the denigration of reason as a means to know the world or God. Once the primacy of force is posited, terrorism becomes the next logical step to power, as it did in the 20th-century secular ideologies of power, Nazism and Marxism-Leninism. This is what led Osama bin Laden to embrace the astonishing statement of his spiritual godfather, Abdullah Azzam, which Osama quoted in the November 2001 video, released after 9/11: “Terrorism is an obligation in Allah’s religion.”
The direct link between the denial of causality and the development of terrorism is illustrated in the bedside reading of Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 and an admirer of the Nazi Brownshirts. His daily reading included the works of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, author of the eleventh-century work The Incoherence of the Philosophers, written to rebut the Mu’tazilite school and its successors who fought for the primacy of reason. Ghazali insisted that God is not bound by any order and that there was, therefore, no “natural” sequence of cause and effect, as in fire burning cotton.
The radical Islamists are the new totalitarians, with the ironic twist that, unlike 20th-century totalitarians, they are not secular. However, this is a distinction without a difference because they share with atheist ideologues the belief that power is the primary constituent of reality. Every totalitarian program flows from the premise that unlimited will is the basis of reality. The Arab jihadist volunteers who went to Iraq to fight for the fascist regime of Saddam Hussein—a cynical secularist who simply manipulated Islam for his own purposes —did not do so simply because they shared his anti-Americanism. Saddam Hussein and the Islamist fighters met at the nexus at which the secular and the theological views of unlimited power coincide. Like 20th-century totalitarians, radical Islamists also use this shared view of reality to dehumanize large portions of mankind, justifying their slaughter—albeit in their case as “infidels,” rather than as non-Aryans or bourgeoisie.
Because democracies base their political order on reason and leave in play questions radical Islamists believe have been definitively settled by revelation, radical Islamists regard democracies as their natural enemies. No amount of aid to persecuted Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan or changes in American foreign policy can remove this stigma.
The response: Judeo-Christian belief holds that the natural order in the universe is a reflection of God as reason, not some blasphemous restriction of His omnipotence, and thus an invitation to explore the universe as a means of knowing Him. The primacy of reason in Western thought is the principal cause for its success in developing science and constitutional government, both of which emanate from natural law. The primacy of reason is also the source of tolerance, as it is only within this worldview that one can “reason” together over even fundamental differences with an adversary.
Reason is compatible with many strains and schools of Islam that share this point of view (indeed, this view was often dominant during Islam’s golden age) and that comprehend why some areas of the Islamic world have been frozen in time. The single most important thing is to support their advancement and encourage, through third parties (since non-Muslims are not welcome as direct interlocutors in this debate), the resuscitation of natural law thinking. This may sound like an abstruse endeavor, but without it, as many Muslims know, there is no hope for the Islamic Umma (standard term for Islamic world or community) to enter the modern world. The radical Islamists are violently opposed to Muslim thinkers who espouse a development of Islam’s dormant natural law tradition because it represents a potent threat to them from within Islam itself.
Ironically, an unprecedented act of terrorism by radical Islamists may have helped move things within Islam in a direction exactly opposite to the terrorists’ intentions. As Turkish intellectual Haldun Gulalp told the Washington Post last February, “September 11 came as the turning point that sealed the end. It is perfectly all right to recognize Islam as a cultural, religious identity but quite another to build a political project based on it, because it reduced a diverse group of people to one meaning. People in Islamist movements started saying: ‘This has nothing to do with us. We have to dissociate ourselves from September 11.’ It is not an accident that a lot of people are talking about liberalism in Islam. Liberal elements have always been there; what is politically significant is what you make of it now, how you teach it.” It is exactly based upon such thinking that we must facilitate the creation and reinforcement of an anti-totalitarian social and intellectual network throughout the Islamic world.
Afghanistan demonstrated the impact of military victory as a powerful rebuttal to radical Islamism, and Saddam’s defeat disillusioned his Islamist allies. Within their theological viewpoint, defeat by a superior power must be interpreted as a judgment from Allah that they have deviated from his path. Therefore, when necessary, the United States must not hesitate to use force to eliminate opponents on the battlefield. However, the ultimate victory in the war of ideas will only be won by ideas. Many in the West seem not to have a clue as to the nature of the struggle at this level. They had better learn fast. Otherwise, our military victories will turn out to be hollow indeed.
Author is a former director of the Voice of America (2001-2002) and special asst. to the US president Ronald Reagan (1985-1986).
Written for the CRISIS Magazine.
Article was published in Slovak language in Conservative Letters 10/2005, a newsletter of the Conservative Institute.