From The Ottawa Citizen
By Robert Sibley, Ottawa Citizen January 3, 2011.
Don’t blame the West
The ‘root causes’ of Islamist terrorism do not lie in poverty or western imperialism, but an age old conflict between reason and revelation
During the last decade of Islamist terrorism, numerous commentators, particularly those on the left, have adopted a materialist approach to explain why some Muslims want to slaughter guests at hotels in Mumbai or detonate bombs at Christmas festivals in Sweden.
Terrorism, they argue, is rooted in poverty, frustration over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and memories of western imperialism. In other words, so the argument goes, the West itself is to blame for terrorism. If only the West would apologize, make reparations, abandon Israel, leave the Middle East and Afghanistan, all would be well. Or at least that’s where the root-cause crowd’s assumptions logically lead.
The problem with this materialist view of terrorism is that it largely misses the spiritual motivations that inform Islamist geo-politics. As political theorist Barry Cooper argues in his book, New Political Religions, or, An Analysis of Modern Terrorism, the Islamists, like the Nazis and Communists, are motivated more by a “disease of the spirit” than materialist aspirations. “When ordinary human beings see themselves as specially chosen by God, or even as gods themselves, they are not necessarily psychopaths, but they most definitely are spiritually disordered.”
Cooper draws on Eric Voegelin, a 20th-century political philosopher who coined the term “pneumopathology” to account for the spiritual diseases of the modern world. Voegelin argued that some people — politicians, intellectuals, journalists, for example — prefer to see the world as a projection of their desires rather than comprehend its reality. Such fabulists effectively live in what Voegelin called a “second-order reality.” If they acquire power they all-too-often pursue extreme measures — genocide, gulags, crashing airplanes into buildings — to transform the world to suit their fantasies of perfection.
In the case of the Islamists, they imagine Islam spreading across the globe and the establishment of a worldwide caliphate based on shariah law. They see themselves empowered by Allah to bring about this new world order by destroying a civilization they regard as spiritually empty. Thus, Islamism constitutes a political religion of apocalyptic proportions.
You don’t have to look far to find hints of such second-order thinking. The New York Hall of Science is currently staging an exhibit titled “1001 Inventions” that purports to show that Islam enjoyed a Golden Age of scientific and intellectual accomplishment when Europe was wallowing in the Dark Ages. According to a New York Times reviewer, the exhibition’s promoters claim Islam’s cultural glories were later “misappropriated” by the West.
It is true that, between the seventh and 10th centuries, Islamic culture spread across North Africa and the Middle East — prompting the building of libraries, universities and cities where science and philosophy were prized. Scholars, such as al-Zahrawi and al-Haytham, made significant contributions to medicine and physics. Philosophers such as al-Kindi and al-Farabi absorbed Aristotle and Plato and, like the Greeks, tried to apply reason to the problems of Muslim society. But to deny that Muslim thinkers borrowed heavily from other cultures — evidence, again, of second-ordering thinking — is a distortion of historical reality. As the Times’ reviewer puts it: “Major cultures of the first millennium (China, India, Byzantium) are mentioned only to affirm the weightier significance of Muslim contributions.”
But then Islam’s Golden Age was golden only in comparison to the endarkenment that descended on Western Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. According to some historians, the rise of Islam in the seventh century exacerbated Europe’s “Dark Age.” “Islam, far from being a force for enlightenment in the so-called Dark Age, was actually responsible for the destruction of the literate and urban civilization that we now call Classical,” says John J. O’Neill, the author of Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization. The Muslim conquests of the Christian lands of the Middle East and North Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries were, he says, made much easier by the breakdown in law and order throughout the Mediterranean as the borders of the Roman imperium receded. In this regard, the “1001 Inventions” exhibition is, perhaps, being disingenuous.
Worse, though, says the reviewer, is the exhibition’s failure to account for the “long eclipse” of Islamic culture. Indeed, one of history’s much-debated puzzles is why the Muslim world stagnated after its Golden Age, why the spirit of scientific inquiry and philosophical debate by and large faded from Islamic culture.
Blame the imams. In the 11th century, Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, a brilliant if tormented theologian, published The Incoherence of the Philosophers, effectively bringing to conclusion centuries of debate in the Muslim world about the primacy of reason versus that of revelation. Reason makes us question things, makes us doubtful and uncertain, al-Ghazali argued. He attacked philosophers who thought that humans could know the world by means of rational thought. Reason, he said, leads to despair. Only divine revelation, the word of God as revealed in the Koran, provides certain knowledge of how best to live. Human reason must submit to Allah’s will.
A century later, another Muslim philosopher challenged al-Ghazali’s views. In The Incoherence of the Incoherence, Ibn Rushd — better known in the West as Averroes — argued that reason was God’s gift to mankind and was to be used for the betterment of society. Ignorant theologians should not intrude on areas they don’t understand. It was too late. The imams carried the day. Averroes’ books were burned and he fled into exile. The voice of reason fell silent in courts of the caliphs and Muslim culture gradually ossified.
Some scholars argue that Islamist terrorism can be traced to this eclipse of reason. Unlike Christianity, which eventually found a way to balance the claims of Athens and Jerusalem, leaving it open to the scientific reasoning that re-emerged in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, Islam has never reconciled reason and revelation. This unwillingness to reconcile the human and the divine fosters the kind of spiritual pathologies that give birth to terrorism.
“Islamism is grounded in a spiritual pathology based upon a theological deformation that has produced a dysfunctional culture,” argues political scientist Robert Reilly in a newly published book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. Mainstream Sunni Islam, which comprises the majority of the faithful in the Muslim world, “has shut the door to reality in a profound way.” This, says Reilly, is the consequence of Islam’s long suppression of reason in favour of religious dogmatism.
Reilly refers to the abandonment of scientific thinking as the “Dehellenization” of Islam. Islam was eventually dominated by those who thought like al-Ghazali. They held that the Koran contained Allah’s direct speech. And, because Allah’s will and action is unlimited, the Koran, as his eternal word, must apply to all times and places. There is no need to look elsewhere in responding to the human condition, regardless of changing circumstances. Since Allah is the first cause of everything, there is no need to look for secondary causes; that is to say, no need to use reason to understand nature’s laws, and, therefore, no need for science.
Such a mindset, Reilly argues, forgoes many attributes Westerners regard as essential to the modern mind, particularly philosophical skepticism and scientific reasoning. “If one lives in a society that ascribes everything to first causes, one is not going to look around the world and try to figure out how it works or how to improve it,” he writes. “The Middle East is poor because of a dysfunctional culture based upon a deformed theology, and unless it can be reformed at that level, economic engineering or the development of constitutional political order will not succeed.”
Other political theorists argue that democracy cannot establish deep roots in a culture where human reason is not paramount because, in Barry Cooper’s words, “the prerequisite of democracy is the respectability of reason.” But without respect for reason there can be no notion of discovering natural laws. And without natural law, says Cooper, “there can be no constitutional political order by which human beings, using reason, create laws to govern themselves and act freely.”
Such views, if valid, augur ill for the presence of Islam within the secular West. If radical Islam is, as Reilly contends, rooted in the suppression of reason, it is hard to see how even moderate Muslims can achieve a deep and wholesome attachment to western societies and their values. How can genuinely devout Muslims identify wholeheartedly with a modern secular society that denies the efficacy of their faith? And if they can’t, what are they going to do about it?
The Islamists’ answer, obviously, is that no accommodation is possible. Hence, they ultimately seek the transformation of the West to accommodate Islam. Chandra Muzaffar, a widely respected Malaysian Islamic scholar, writing in a 2006 book, The New Voices of Islam, captures this spiritual aspiration: “Islam and the post-Enlightenment secular West are diametrically opposed to one another.
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