Can Liberal Societies Combat Radical Islam?
“With our usual genius for timing AEI [the American Enterprise Institute] just scheduled this seminar on the subject The Suicide of Reason just after Columbia University held what it styled a discussion session with a terrorist madman who is delighted to have American blood on his hands and whose madness, as Lee Harris will tell us, has a method to it.”
With that opening, Christopher DeMuth, the president of AEI set the tone for an event surrounding the release of Lee Harris’s new book, The Suicide of Reason, Radical Islam’s Threat to the West. Mr. Harris presented his provocative arguments about the inability of societies based on enlightened liberal thought and reason to combat radical Islam and fanaticism in what was to be a rather confusing greatest-hits tour of the Enlightenment, Islamic philosophical thought, and Classical philosophy. The figures cited included the likes of Abelard, Aristotle, Hagel, Hobbes, Hume, Ibn Khaldun, Lacan and Socrates to name a few. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former member of Dutch parliament and current AEI fellow responded and then critiqued Harris’s arguments. They then squared off against each other, and against Islam.
Lee Harris, heralded by Mr. DeMuth as an “independent free lance intellectual” given his lack of affiliation with a think tank, university or any kind of organization, lives in the rural mountains in Georgia where he pursues his writing. He has previously published in Policy Review, the Wall Street Journal, and is the author of Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is currently a resident fellow at AEI where her research areas include the relationship between Islam and the West, women’s rights in Islam, and violence against women propagated using religious and cultural arguments. Known for her staunch atheist and secularist beliefs, Ms. Ali has been a vocal critique of Islam and in her book speaks of her personal transformation from the “the world of faith to the world of reason.” In 2004 Ms. Ali made the film Submission about the oppression of women in conservative Islamic cultures with the director Theo Van Gogh. The film, aired on Dutch television, led to the Theo Van Gogh’s assassination by an Islamic extremist who called for a holy war against the West.
Mr. Harris described his inspiration for his book as born from a “shock, like an earthquake and then a series of after shocks,” beginning with 9/11, and then followed by, “watching Palestinians celebrate the event [9/11 attacks] in the street.” Another “after shock” was the propensity of scholars in the United States to draw analogies between the attacks on the World Trade Centers and the attack on Pearl Harbor and to suggest that the U.S. was on the brink of World War III. Between what Mr. Harris perceived as lack of mourning throughout the Muslim world and the WWII analogies he was hearing at home he realized the West was not facing a “Clausewitz style war,” but rather a threat more insidious and harmful to liberal values and what he termed an “ideological epidemic,” that causes “psychological and cultural damage” relying on a psychology of fear rather than on large-scale military attacks.
In addition to philosophical discussion, Mr. Harris critiqued Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations as offering an inadequate model to address and remedy societal differences. In his take-down, Harris argued that it is impossible to adopt a policy of non-involvement between Eastern and Western cultures, saying that in “Radical Islam the pretension [is] not simply to grow but to bring down the entire system, the status quo.” Reason, in the sense that the West as influenced by the enlightenment understands it says, “you do not want to have ruthless people take over your society,” but Mr. Harris continued, “there are people who actually like being ruthless” (meaning radical Islamists). Mr. Harris pointed to 9/11 and its aftermath as “a crash of civilizations” in which those whom he called “anarchophiles” (a term he coined) would use any means to gain power and upset the current system.
At its core, Mr. Harris’s depiction of Islamic culture was as pre-modern and ruled by “the law of the jungle.” In this depiction, jihad is not only “the essential glue of Islam,” but also seemingly the articulation of a might-makes-right philosophy. To Mr. Harris’s thinking, then, Islamic culture will never respect the individuals, and tribalism trumps all. This characteristic above all defines the dichotomy Mr. Harris sees between Islamic society and, to use his term, Western enlightened society, which respects individualism.
Mr. Harris did not appeal to every clichéd critique of Islamic civilization, however. He argued that the term “Islamo-fascism” deludes and misleads. Whereas fascism was tyrannical minority rule, Mr. Harris argued jihad is a popular revival movement, with deep roots within Islamic society going back to the prophet Mohamed. Notably absent from Mr. Harris’s presentation was any acknowledgement of the debate among Muslim scholars and communities about the definition of jihad.
Ms. Ali first responded to Mr. Harris’s characterization of Islamic culture as one monolithic entity without individuals with individual thought, and she countered that culture is dynamic and changeable and that individuals,“ are able to innovate and respond.” For instance, Ms. Ali said that there is a danger in categorizing “all Muslims,” as any one thing, saying that there is a “difference between Ahmadinejad and the Iranian people,” especially in terms of their perceptions of the West. While Mr. Harris seemed to suggest that it is impossible to appeal to a sense of reason from those within Islamic cultures, Ms. Ali said people all over the world “use Enlightenment reason in daily life,” and that “we should appeal more to [Muslims’] sense of reason,” maintaining that the Enlightenment is a threat to radical Islam. At the same time, Ms. Ali had harsh words for tribalism and tribal Islamic society saying, “enlightened tribalism is an oxymoron,” because the elevation of group interests inherent in tribal life inevitably evolves into totalitarianism. Ms. Ali continued with, “Once individuals get enlightened they are no longer tribal.”
Ms. Ali was also more optimistic in her belief that democracy and reason will triumph, and even pointed to her own personal transformation from tribal society to Western ideals and enlightenment reason. In addition to her own life, Ms. Ali highlighted the West’s ability to transform Japan and Germany into liberal democracies after WWII. Ms. Ali said that the West must “confront words with words,” and “attack when attacked.” More provocatively, Ms. Ali suggested that to combat the spread of radical Islam, the West must promote individualism and secularism, saying, “for every madrasa in the world, we can place a school next to it, spreading what be believe in, secular liberalism.” Ms. Ali said the source of her optimism about the future of individualism in Islamic society comes from the teachings of groups like the Islamic Brotherhood who advocate a personal relationship with the Koran without reliance on an Islamic state or Imam for religious guidance. While groups like the Islamic Brotherhood promote ideas at odds with Western liberal democracy, the individual relationship with religion they promote will lead to greater rates of literacy and promote individual thought.
In response to a question from the audience that asked Ms. Ali to reconcile why she and Mr. Harris, without hesitation, could compare Islam – a religion – with the West – a civilization — Ms. Ali responded, “Islam is a religion and political philosophy,” and Mr. Harris would certainly agree. Perhaps next time AEI will have the foresight to include a panelist who wouldn’t.