How to Lose the War on Terrorism:
IV. Acts of Faith

Mark Perry & Alastair Crooke

Asia Times, June 6, 2006

That talking and listening would now seem so difficult is not the result of some inherent inability of differing cultures to understand one another, or of Islam’s long-standing religious or political incompatibility with the West, nor of some inevitable and irrepressible clash of civilizations.

Rather, the decision not to talk and not to listen is the result of a purposeful political choice made by political figures in the West (who believe that democracy is “ours”, while “the arc of violence” is “theirs”) and by Salafists in the Islamic world (who believe their cause is “sacred” while ours is “idolatrous”).

While the roots of this mutual intolerance are only now becoming clear, both Western takfiris and Islamic Salafists adhere to similar doctrinal principles and, at least in part, are rooted in the fear that their values are under siege not simply by “terrorists” (in the views of the West) and “hegemonists” (in the views of the Salafists) but more prominently from dissenters in each society whose lack of moral certainty is viewed as a weakness.

Neo-conservatism …
In 1996, prominent conservatives William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote that the United States had a special role in spreading democracy; the nation should not simply be “a benevolent hegemon”, but should “go abroad in search of monsters”.

And why not? they asked. “Because America has the capacity to contain or destroy many of the world’s monsters, most of which can be found without much searching, and because the responsibility for the peace and security of the international order rests so heavily on America’s shoulders, a policy of sitting atop a hill and leading by example becomes in practice a policy of cowardice and dishonor.” Kristol and Kagan called themselves “neo-Reaganites”, but those who espoused their policies soon began to describe themselves as neo-conservatives.

That modern Western political thought has been unduly influenced by the writings and teachings of University of Chicago Professor Leo Strauss – said to be the original “neo-conservative” – is by now a fashionable, if exaggerated and reductive, popular convention. Paradoxically, the convention is made use of most prominently by the unconventional: followers of Lyndon LaRouche, anti-Zionists, marginalized libertarians, irritated conservatives and a range of conspiracy theorists that span the political spectrum.

Prominent neo-conservative David Horowitz rejects the category outright (“‘Neo-conservatism’ is a term almost exclusively used by the enemies of America’s liberation of Iraq”), while former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz (one of Strauss’s students) says the term is used in the Middle Eastern press as “a euphemism for some kind of nefarious Zionist conspiracy”.

Then too, there is a tendency to “read back” into Strauss from the neo-conservatives, a simple enough task of finding in his works echoes of current political thinking. That said, the godfather of neo-conservatism, Irving Kristol (the founder of The Public Interest and author of Neo-Conservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea), embraces the term, describing neo-conservatives as “liberals mugged by reality” – that is to say, those liberals whose formerly naive view of the world was transformed by communism’s deeply rooted and obvious evil.

If conspiracy-oriented, the neo-conservative label nevertheless accurately describes a thread of beliefs that unite a core of former liberals and militant anti-communists who dominate Western foreign-policy thinking. While a handful of neo-conservatives dismiss the label, many others have willingly and proudly adopted it as a moniker of their set of beliefs or, while rejecting it, have followed neo-conservative precepts and associate themselves with its promoters.

Those neo-conservatives comprise a current “who’s who” of the Western power elite: Horowitz, Wolfowitz and Irving Kristol, as well as US Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, former secretary of education William Bennett, author and historian Max Boot, American Enterprise Institute foreign-policy expert Thomas Donnelly, former US under secretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith, author Frances Fukuyama, former US assistant secretary of defense Frank Gaffney, historian and political theorist Robert Kagan, father and son authors (While American Sleeps) Donald and Frederick Kagan, former US ambassador to the United Nations Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Martin Kramer, editor and columnist William Kristol, American Enterprise Institute analyst Michael Ledeen, and American-Israel Public Affairs Committee editor Michael Lewis (the son of Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis).

Others are think-tank founder Clifford May, former New Republic editor Martin Peretz, former US assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle, former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz, Middle East Quarterly editor Michael Rubin, Washington Institute for Near East Policy official Robert Satloff, former US Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey, Hudson Institute scholar Meyrav Wurmser, and US Vice President Richard Cheney’s Middle East adviser, David Wurmser – among many others.

The reach of these policymakers, pundits, intellectuals, authors and government officials is breathtaking; their works have appeared in closely read neo-conservative publications (Commentary, Policy Review, The National Review, The New Republic, The Public Interest, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard), and they control or substantially influence a number of respected Washington think-tanks: The Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, the Project for the New American Century, and the Hudson Institute.

How far is their reach? In the course of a conversation with the foreign minister of Hezbollah, Nawaf Mousawi, he let slip that he was reading Karl Popper. We were impressed with this seemingly offhand tidbit (that a Hezbollah official would be reading a Western philosopher we found of passing interest) until we realized that Popper’s influential The Open Society and Its Enemies had been a target for some of Leo Strauss’s most pointed political critiques.

There is as broad a political spectrum within the neo-conservative movement as there is in the US in general. Our identification of particular individuals as a part of the same political current is not to say that neo-conservatives agree on each and every issue. Then, too, it is as important for us to differentiate between trends inside the movement as it is important for neo-conservatives, we argue, to recognize the diversity of currents inside of political Islam.

It is difficult, for instance, to list Michael Ledeen and Paul Wolfowitz as a part of the same political line. A resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Ledeen is known in Washington for his extreme statements – he once accused US senator and Vietnam combat veteran Chuck Hagel of “appeasement”, said that the “Franco-German” opposition to the Iraq war identified those countries as America’s “strategic enemies”, and regularly advocates the overthrow of “the murderous mullahcracy” in Iran.

Wolfowitz, on the other hand, seems a wrongly maligned figure: while he bears some responsibility for the Iraq debacle, he has consistently called for a recognition of Palestinian aspirations (which drew raucous “boos” from a pro-Israel rally held after September 11, 2001) and is said to be privately angered by the Bush administration’s current policy of cutting funding to the Hamas-run Palestinian Authority.

It would be as impossible to accuse Wolfowitz of the same off-hand just-below-the-surface ugliness that characterizes Michael Ledeen as it would be to suppose that Ledeen would ever advocate the recognition of Palestinian grievances.

Even so, while there are disagreements among neo-conservatives over the minutiae of some foreign-policy issues, there is broad agreement on a core set of principles: that the United States not only “possesses the means – economic, military, diplomatic – to realize its expansive geopolitical purposes” (in Thomas Donnelly’s phrase), but that it has a moral obligation to do so.

The attacks of September 11 are seen as the result not of overweening US ambitions (“the reason their terrorists are over here is because our soldiers are over there”, in conservative Patrick Buchanan’s famous phrase), but because the United States and its allies have not been vigilant.

“The September 11 attack was a result of insufficient American involvement and ambition; the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in their implementation,” Max Boot wrote just one month after the attacks. Unashamedly, and bluntly, Boot’s liturgical flourishes have become a part of the neo-conservative catechism: “The most realistic response to terrorism is for America to embrace its imperial role.” Boot’s apparent embrace of empire, however, is ladled by neo-conservatives’ nearly apostolic faith in the power of democracy – a faith first enunciated by Wolfowitz at the height of the Cold War: “The best antidote to communism is democracy,” he wrote in April 1985.

While Wolfowitz’s formula caused discomfort among some neo-conservatives (Wolfowitz supported the shah of Iran, but only – as he explained – because Iran did not have “well-established institutions of democracy”), it has become the principal sacrament of the neo-conservative creed.

The genius of neo-conservatism is that its adherents have unblinkingly adopted the kind of metaphysical absolutism that Paul once reserved for his savior – and so are invulnerable to the kind of Fallujah-induced moral vertigo that so relentlessly stalks the rest of us. The power of this unshakable faith not only remains the major (or only) political current in the United States, it continues to gain adherents among America’s once-wobbly allies. A newly elected conservative government in Canada has reinforced its commitment to America’s foreign policy, and neo-conservatives are now among the most influential voices in the French cabinet. And recently, British Prime Minister Tony Blair emerged as one of neo-conservatism’s most articulate supporters: “This is not a clash between civilizations. It is a clash about civilization,” he said in March. “It is the age-old battle between progress and reaction, between those who embrace and see opportunity in the modern world and those who reject its existence; between optimism and hope on the one hand and pessimism and fear on the other. That is what this battle is about; it is a battle of values and progress; and therefore it is one we must win.”

Blair’s message was an unmistakable confirmation of neo-conservatism’s central, and now all but canonical, tenet: in expanding the US empire it is promoting its values; if some oppose the empire, it’s only because they oppose US values – or have none.

…and its discontents
Neo-conservatism is more than simply a set of ideas – it is a kind of political theology. Its major political principles derive from a critique of modern liberal and secular society. Deeply influenced by the fall of Germany’s Weimar Republic, Leo Strauss (a German who emigrated to the US) critiqued Weimar’s leaders as being insufficiently ruthless in suppressing the Nazis; they played by the rules and were defeated.

“The Weimar Republic was weak. It had only one moment of strength if not greatness: its violent reaction to the assassination of the Jewish minister of foreign affairs, Walter Rathenau, in 1922,” Strauss wrote in 1966. “All in all, Weimar showed the spectacle of justice without force, or of justice incapable of resorting to force.”

The Weimar metaphor is much-repeated and points to our naivety – the implication being that we are talking with Nazis who, it is said, came to power as a result of an election. This position was on prominent display during a briefing that we gave at the Middle East Institute last October, when an analyst from a leading Washington, DC, think-tank pointedly claimed that our promotion of democracy for Islamist groups could lead to “another Weimar”. After all, this critic claimed, “Hitler came to power through a democratic election.”

The same claim has been made by a host of commentators and senior foreign-policy makers, most but not all of whom are neo-conservatives, including: L Paul Bremer (who claimed, in November 2004, that Weimar’s huge debt “led to Adolf Hitler’s election”), Daniel Pipes (who wrote last January that “Western capitals need to show Palestinians that – like Germans electing Hitler in 1933 – they have made a decision gravely unacceptable to civilized opinion”), and even Donald Rumsfeld (who criticized Venezuela’s people for electing Hugo Chavez “just like Adolf Hitler, who was elected legally”).

The only problem with this historical position is that it is wrong: Hitler did not come to office as the result of an election. In fact, he was soundly defeated in Germany’s presidential election of 1932, but was appointed chancellor in 1933 by Paul von Hindenburg. Hitler took dictatorial powers in 1933 as the result of a “soft coup”, when the Nazi leadership engineered the Reichstag fire, blamed the communists, and suspended all future elections. (Weimar official Franz von Papen was later tried at Nuremberg for his role in engineering Hitler’s appointment as chancellor of Germany – and was acquitted.)

In emphasizing the flaws of the Weimar Republic, Strauss struck at what he identified as the three pillars of modern liberal thought: “moral relativism”, “multiculturalism” and “utilitarianism”. Of the three, moral relativism (Strauss wrote) constitutes the greatest threat to the strength of Western society. If all views are held to be equally legitimate and all views have equal value, Strauss believed, then no person’s view can be an expression of the “truth”. German National Socialism was not just another point of view, it was an absolute evil.

Gulled by their liberal secular beliefs, by the bankrupt notion that all ideas are equally credible, and yearning for the rewards of a sleep-inducing materialist society, the leaders of Weimar passed out of office – and into the camps.

“Moral relativism”, Strauss believed, would lead inevitably to the eclipse of idealism in the West, undermining the sense of national sacrifice that motivates any society. The atomization of social life through the adoption of “multiculturalism” and the softening of social strength by providing the greatest good for the greatest number would allow people to retreat into their own consumerist bubble.

Bereft of beliefs, adrift in a sea of multiple cultures, fed on the hedonism that followed from the accumulation of material goods, the West would implode. Inevitably “moral relativism”, “multiculturalism” and “utilitarianism” will so undermine any society, Strauss argued, that a government’s first and only priority would be economic management. The danger of “moral relativism” is that it inevitably leads to political acquiescence.

Strauss was convinced he was right, and for good reason. He looked on aghast as Weimar’s intellectual inheritors (Neville Chamberlain, Charles Lindbergh, the Bund and others) transformed their moral relativism into political appeasement – which led to the deaths of untold millions.

Strauss’s answer was that modern societies must shun moral relativism. By implication, Strauss seemed to be saying, the only way for secular and democratic societies to stimulate idealism and national sacrifice is for political leaders to cast national goals in terms of good and evil. Because tyrannies do not hold the same values as republics, the tyrants are always wrong, we are always right, and there can be no excuse, no justification, and no reason behind a tyranny’s actions.

The enemies of those with values are those who have none. Only by understanding this threat – and insisting that the response to it be uncompromising – can evil hope to be defeated. Strauss argued, further, that international politics was a perpetual struggle between states and that, in this struggle, deceit was a common currency. But deceit, in Strauss’s view, can be a weapon in the struggle of values. Secular societies need not recoil from deceit, as the triumph of their values far outweighs the damage such deceit might cause.

Nor, Strauss argued, should secular societies recoil from the necessity of “regime change”. Strauss believed that the customs, habits and institutions of a society give it its character. For secular societies to triumph, Strauss wrote, it would be necessary for them to change the customs, habits and institutions of tyrannies. In the face of political evil, regime change remains the only means open to secular societies to transform tyrannies to republics.

Then too, as political conflict is embedded in political acts, the transformation of tyrannies would actually strengthen democratic societies: “Because mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed,” Strauss wrote. “Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united – and they can only be united against other people.”

We note that while Leo Strauss did not know the uses to which his students would put his scholarship, his disciples have taken his most important ideas as a starting point for their own political views. Strauss believed that the human condition is governed by a singular choice: to live a life of inquiry or to live a life in obedience to law. This choice – between “Athens” and “Jerusalem” – is the choice that has faced all humans: whether to remain in Plato’s cave (where reality appears as mere shadows on a wall) or whether to ascend into the sunlight of full knowledge.

The awful price of making a choice is that while in the cave we remain ignorant of the way things really are – but if we ascend into the sunlight we, like Socrates, might well forfeit our lives.

So far so good, but Strauss also believed that this fundamental choice was distorted by the Enlightenment, whose thinkers “were hostile to theological-political authority”. The “waves of modernity” that resulted from the Enlightenment (including the subversive ideas that the universe is intelligible, that human thought holds the key to unlocking its mysteries, that rights are inalienable and that all human lives have equal value), dampened the tensions between Athens and Jerusalem.

“Seen in this light,” commentator Mark Lilla notes, “Strauss’s seemingly scattered historical studies and their unique approach take on coherent philosophical meaning. They are all based on the large assumption that we are living under some sort of spell in the ‘second cave’ of Enlightenment illusions, and on the enticing thought that escape is possible.”

Strauss’s ideas had a powerful influence on his students, many of whom openly described themselves as his disciples. One of these self-proclaimed disciples was Allan Bloom, a Plato scholar whose masterful translation of The Republic is judged by some as the closest approximation to Plato’s original.

Bloom spent much of the 1960s at Cornell University, where Wolfowitz was one of his students and where, as a result of the sometimes violent on-campus protests over the Vietnam War, he began shaping his own ideas about the “moral relativism” infecting US society. The result was the eventual publication of The Closing of the American Mind, a critique of US higher education.

Bloom argued that the decay in teaching and scholarship was directly attributable to US academia’s adoption of academic programs that devalued the brilliance of “the great books” as simply the product of “dead white men”. Devaluing the worth of the West’s great thinkers, Bloom wrote, was leading to the erosion of values among American students, creating a crisis akin to that which had infected the Weimar Republic: “The American university in the ’60s was experiencing the same dismantling of the structure of rational inquiry as had the German university in the ’30s,” Bloom wrote. “Whether it be Nuremberg or Woodstock, the principle is the same.”

The erosion of values was being deepened by a misconceived multiculturalism: “The point is to force students to recognize that there are other ways of thinking and that Western ways are not better,” Bloom wrote. “But if the students were really to learn something of the minds of these non-Western cultures – which they do not – they would find that each and every one of these cultures is ethnocentric.”

Bloom’s solution to these problems caused enormous controversy, as they were couched in “Straussian” political terms: what was needed, Bloom argued, was an end to “educational appeasement” and to the intellectual distortions of “moral relativism”. Americans must emerge from their cave of illusion where all ideas have equal weight.

St Paul and St George
The idea that non-Western cultures are nativist, closed and – in Bloom’s phrase – “ethnocentric” is rooted in the same ancient Greek inheritance that gave us Plato and Aristotle. The Greeks also gave us the word “barbarian”, because the uncivilized people on their shores were viewed as “babblers” who spoke an incomprehensible language, who literally “baba’d” or “stammered” and so could not be understood.

The Greeks soon put this term to political uses, accusing their Persian enemies of rejecting the values promoted by the city-state, where free citizens could live in peace while the Persians were slaves to a king – they were “barbarians”. The inimitable Paul of Tarsus expanded the meaning of the term, likening non-believers to “barbarians” who remained in darkness: when he spoke of “Christ crucified” they refused to listen, when they spoke of “the gods” he refused to hear: “Therefore I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.” Paul refused to listen not because the pagans could not be heard, but because they had nothing to say.

That Paul’s refusal to speak or listen has been passed down to us in the West and is a part of our religious and political heritage is the subject of Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind. Freeman’s narrative is seen by many as a response to Allan Bloom’s overheated condemnation of “moral relativism” and “multiculturalism”. While Freeman never responds directly to Bloom’s thesis, the similarities in titles are hard to miss.

While Freeman’s work uncovers the role of orthodox Christianity in suppressing Greek rationalism in the wake of Paul’s testimony, he implies that just as faith gained prominence over reason in the 5th century, so too now our inability to view other cultures as anything other than “ethnocentric” has gained ascendancy in Western political circles. The battle between faith and reason is still alive today, Freeman argues, but it was Paul who “declared the war and prepared the battlefield”.

Indeed, Western officials have quite unconsciously adopted Paul’s language, describing Islamists as a class of new barbarians whose words are without content. When a US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) counter-terrorism official was asked for his views on Ayman al-Zawahiri’s April 27 video, he responded with a shrug: “It’s the same old jihadist rigmarole,” he said. “Rigmarole” is a slang expression first used in the late 1770s that is derived from “ragman roll”, the name of a children’s game filled with incomprehensible words.

More properly, the FBI statement was used to describe “a string of incoherent statements; a disjointed or rambling speech, discourse, story; a trivial or almost senseless harangue”. It did not matter what Zawahiri said – he was a barbarian unto us, he was “babbling”.

There is little subtlety in the West’s presentation of Islam as a religion of barbarians: Christian evangelical programs have regularly described Islam as a “religion of violence” that “rejects our value system”. Franklin Graham, the son of the popular American preacher Billy Graham (and a regular visitor to the Bush White House), was outspoken in condemning Islam in the wake of the September 11 attacks, conflating the faith of the attackers with Islam in general: “We did not attack Islam, but Islam attacked us. The god of Islam is not the same god. He’s not the son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It’s a different god, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion,” he said.

Graham is not here posing as an expert on Islam, but as a man of faith – for, as Paul made eminently clear, expertise is not necessary where faith is present. That the Bush administration was comfortable with Graham’s certainty was never in doubt, as the faith-based certainty he articulated had already arrived in the White House just after the inauguration of President George W Bush in 2001.

New York Times essayist and journalist Ron Suskind has noted that even in the earliest day of the Bush presidency, the administration showed a disturbing “disdain for contemplation or deliberation, an embrace of decisiveness, a retreat from empiricism, a sometimes bullying impatience with doubters and even friendly questioners”.

The emergence of Bush’s faith-based certainty was applied initially to church-based community programs, which were granted the status of community-service organizations that could receive government monies – and were also free from taxation. The same approach to government was given greater life after September 11, where Bush’s certainty took on a disturbing messianism.

“He [Bush] truly believes he’s on a mission from God,” one former administration official notes. “Absolute faith like that overwhelms the need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.” Another official told Suskind that he believes that in the wake of September 11, Bush emerged as “a messianic American Calvinist”. In fact, Bush showed indelicate impatience with anyone who claimed that September 11 presented the West with a complicated test that required a nuanced, careful and patient response.

Bush dismissed that view. His was a patented neo-conservative approach – September 11 had nothing to do with America’s role in the region. “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world,” Bush said one month after September 11. When people began to ask what the US and its allies might have done to spark the attacks, Bush responded immediately. The attacks had nothing to do with US policy. “He wanted to cut that off right away,” a former speechwriter notes, “and make it clear that he saw absolutely no moral equivalence.”

Ataturk’s advocate
But for the West to engage in what Tony Blair called “the age-old battle between progress and reaction, between those who embrace and see opportunity in the modern world and those who reject its existence; between optimism and hope on the one hand and pessimism and fear on the other”, it was not simply necessary that the neo-conservatives battle the monster of militant Islam, it was essential that the West also provide a model for change, for political transformation – and an expert standard-bearer whose knowledge of the Islamic world would give the Western program a patina of legitimacy.

The Bush administration found such an expert standard-bearer in Bernard Lewis, readily adopting Turkey as a model for the kinds of changes that could be wrought through the imposition of modern Western-style secularism. Lewis’s The Emergence of Modern Turkey was published in 1961. Lewis was then an increasingly respected scholar, a graduate of the University of London, and a prolific writer and linguist.

The Emergence of Modern Turkey was Lewis’s foray into an interpretive view of Islam as a religion at war with itself and at war with the West’s conception of secular civilization. Lewis was transfixed by Kemal Ataturk’s forced secularization of Turkey: the abolition of the Caliphate, the imposition of puritanical secularism, the closing of religious schools, the banning of Islamic dress, and the purging of the Turkish language of its Arabic vocabulary.

For Lewis, Ataturk’s “reforms” seemed to confirm that Judeo-Christian civilization was entering the final stages of a protracted struggle with Islam. Turkey would be a battleground in that inevitable clash, and a model of how a modern secular society could triumph over Islam’s medieval traditions. As Lewis’s arguments took hold, his stature in the academic community increased until he was acknowledged as America’s chief interpreter of Islam.

It was Lewis, and not Samuel Huntington, who coined the term “clash of civilizations” in an article titled “The Roots of Muslim Rage”. “It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them,” he wrote in the September 1990 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. “This is no less than a clash of civilizations – that perhaps irrational but surely historic reactions of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.”

Lewis’s critics have struck back, with claims of “lazy generalizations, the reckless distortions of history, the wholesale demotion of civilizations into categories like irrational and enraged”, and by pointing out that Lewis treats “a billion people” as if they were one, and that the clash of civilization is between “us” and them” – between those who have values, and those who have none.

The late Edward Said was Lewis’s (and Huntington’s) most persistent and articulate critic, taking on the “clash of civilizations” thesis in “The Clash of Definitions”, an essay that enraged both his antagonists: “Is it wise as an intellectual and a scholarly expert to produce a simplified map of the world and then hand it to generals and civilian lawmakers as a prescription for first comprehending and then acting in the world? Doesn’t this method in effect prolong, exacerbate, and deepen conflict? Do we want a clash of civilizations?”

While Lewis’s 1990 Atlantic essay spurred his detractors, it enhanced his reputation among neo-conservatives, who saw him as a purveyor of the values that would be promoted by the United States in the Middle East – where the US, after September 11, would set out to “destroy many of the world’s monsters”.

The attacks on September 11 catapulted Lewis from the world of scholarly debates into the home of Vice President Dick Cheney, who convened a dinner of experts to help shape a policy toward Islam. Lewis dominated the discussion, telling Cheney that radical Islamists viewed the US as incapable of maintaining a strong foreign-policy course, as evidenced by the US retreat from Beirut in 1983 and from Somalia in 1993.

Cheney was entranced by Lewis’s views, though not simply because he agreed with him: here was a man with a vision of Islam and the credentials that would give US policy legitimacy. Cheney was particularly attracted by Lewis’s view that Islam’s problems are largely self-inflicted, and that the legacy of Western colonialism and economic exploitation has little to do with Muslim attacks on Western societies.

This fit well with the neo-conservative view – which was already maintaining that “when we were attacked on September 11, we knew the main reason for the attack was that Islamists hated our way of life, our virtues, our freedoms”. The attacks had nothing to do with Western policies, with the legacy of colonialism, or with the support for Middle Eastern dictators. It wasn’t that we in the West have bad policies, it was that they have no values.

It is not hard to see how the young Lewis (a scholar diligently bent over his researches in the dusty Ottoman archives in the wake of World War II) was so taken with Kemal Ataturk. Here was a Muslim, Lewis believed, who understood that modernization of his culture could only take place when Islam adopted the narrative of the West.

Lewis set about his life’s work with a fury, transmitting Ataturk’s vision of a new Middle East for a generation of US and British policymakers. His influence is undeniable: Lewis’s views on Islam embody the now prevalent Western vision of Islamists as reactionaries at war with modernism, as obscuritanists doing battle with values, as technophobes seeking a return to the 7th century. Lewis was particularly intrigued by Ataturk’s description of Islam as “a putrefied corpse which poisons our lives” and as “the enemy of civilization and science”.

When Ataturk ended the thousand-year Caliphate in 1923, his political program of modernization paralleled his project to demonize Islam. Ataturk’s followers rewrote the history of the peoples of Anatolia, creating a broad tent that could accommodate Turks, ethnic Kurds and Armenians. Islam had little place in Ataturk’s triumphant national narrative and it was ruthlessly and purposely suppressed. Islamic clothing, music and education were replaced by Western models that were duplicated slavishly. His formula “Mecca or Mechanization” became the mantra of the young officers who surrounded him.

But Lewis’s attraction to Ataturk told only half of the story. In driving Islam from the state bureaucracy, the Kemalists rooted it more firmly in the street and mosque. Kemalism thus created the conditions in which Islamism transmuted and evolved, giving space to generations of new thinkers who have challenged Islamic orthodoxy. Islam’s response to Kemalism included the articulation of a politics of discontent that opposed the liquidation of Muslim identity and rejected an Ataturk-imposed Western world order.

The new Islamism refused to accept that universal values could only be imported from the Western historical narrative. Instead, they searched for universal values derived from Islam, with an emphasis on the Koran and the seed community of Muslims at Medina – an alternative historical perspective outside the Western narrative. Thus was born a decades-long hostility that has shaped the character of modern political Islamists.

In one sense, Turkey is the talisman of this disorder, with a historical cycle of the failure of Kemalist-forced secularization, followed by military intervention, followed by a retreat until forced secularization is attempted yet again. It is this cycle of imposed secularism, military intervention and inevitable retreat that has caused so much anxiety in the West, for the rise of Islamism challenges the efficacy of the Kemalist model: the West’s sense that bloody religious wars must be resolved in favor of the state, our concept of a nation-state divorced from religion, our view that modernity can only be successful when Western models are adopted – or imposed.

More crucially, the rise of political Islam portends a reinsertion of God into politics, of faith into society’s governance and signals that the coherence of the Western project is being challenged by one-fifth of the world’s population. Western anxieties are exacerbated by the rising militarization of some Islamist movements, for the violent reaction to imposed modernization seems a sign of intellectual bankruptcy.

Put another way, the West’s Westphalian inheritance (the resolution of Europe’s religious wars that murdered one-third of the continent’s population) sees national struggles as reasonable and normal, while violence in the name of religious ideals promises a spiral into anarchy. More simply, Lewis’s vision of a secular Middle East on Ataturk’s model is specious in several respects, as its permanence has yet to be proved and because the Kemalist program, when replicated by avowedly nationalist leaders in Arab societies, exiled the voices of Islam from the halls of government, but not from the street or mosque.

So it is that we are reluctantly forced to acknowledge that the words of our most important allies, those secularized pro-Western leaders of the region – Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, President General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and the young King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia – mean less to the vast majority of politically engaged Islamists than the words of two Islamic leaders, dead now, with disparate beliefs and followers.

Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and Pakistani Maulana Maududi explicitly rejected Ataturk’s conception of a national state as a rejection of Islamic law and culture and, in the process, freed political Islam from the constraints of clerics and scholars. Qutb argued in Milestones that Muslims do not need an Islamic hierarchy to tell them how to live; all they need do is treat the Koran as both a practical personal guide as well as a political manifesto, while Maududi (Qutb’s progenitor) urged Muslims – who saw their community divided by successive generations of Western diplomats – to rediscover their common political and cultural roots in Islam.

Qutb wrote that the Koran was accessible and understandable by all, a statement that is as influential in Islam today as Martin Luther’s theses were to Christianity 500 years ago. Qutb and Maududi speak to Muslims across the ages, their words repeated in sermons and books throughout the Arab world. It is their vision for the future, and not Ataturk’s, that remains vibrantly alive in the Muslim world today.

This article first appeared in Asia Times.

One Comment

  1. […] of the religious beliefs that are involved but there is no rational refuge here, considering the highly perverse and divisive philosophies and the irrational, frightening nihilistic millenarianism right at the centres of power in the west […]

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