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Scruton on Islam

Roger Scruton has a really excellent article on Islam and politics (*.pdf format). A notable aspect of the piece is the light it sheds on the strength of Islam in relation to modernity. Scruton’s account confirms that radical Islam isn’t medieval at all. It reflects, for example, in the form of Wahhabism, the Protestant Reformation our deep thinkers are always wishing on the Islamic world.

The basic issue, although Scruton doesn’t put it this way, is that Islam tries to be a universal monotheism without Incarnation, Sacraments or divinely-founded Church. That’s a problem, because it makes God too distant from the world for us to know except as an utterly incomprehensible being issuing orders for no reason we can even imagine. As a result, the gap between nature and grace becomes unbridgeable. Morality becomes a matter of the demands of an arbitrary will in a corrupt and spiritually empty world that is discredited by its infinite distance from God. Islam thus has difficulty recognizing the legitimate authority of natural human institutions such as ordinary consensual politics, public life, and social attachments other than the strictly personal on one side and the universal and ideological on the other.

All that makes Islam sound rather like radical modernity, and the main figures in Radical Islam—theoreticians like Sayyid Qutb, Ali Shariati and the Ayatollah Khomeini as well as practical men like the 9/11 hijackers—were indeed very familiar with the West. They developed their views in specific response to Western modernity, and those views make sense from that standpoint. After all, if morality is arbitrary, and we’re all in exile in a world that has no intrinsic meaning, why wouldn’t it be better to commit to God’s arbitrary will, which might possibly enable us to live in peace and companionship, rather than one’s own will that’s always varying and goes nowhere? Or if radical politics and “being-towards-death” are the only hope for overcoming the pure factuality and inauthenticity of the consumer society, why not do it Islamic style and blow up the World Trade Center?

Radical Islam is not simply stupid, bizarre, foreign and retrograde. It’s as serious a response to real issues as almost anything we have in the West. So far our response to 9/11 has been to make the West as much as possible the thing to which Radical Islam is the response. I don’t think that’s a good idea.



My only quibble is your characterization of Osama bin Laden as “familiar” with the West. In point of fact he has had very, very little contact with it, and has met very few infidels personally. I doubt he understantds Western modernism enough really to formulate anything other than a visceral response to it. For a long while, his militancy wasn’t directed at the US at all, but at the USSR. In defeating what was thought to be the greater of the two Great Powers, the mujahadeen developed the impression that the Great Satan would be rather a simple kill, and that the time for Islam’s final ascendancy over the hated West had come.

That aside, it never ceases to chill me to think that Atta was very deeply acquainted with the West—he lived in the US, met its people, enjoyed its liberties, feasted at its sensual banquet table—and he saw his mission through all the same. There is more contained in that fact than most people have paused to contemplate, I think. Perhaps, in part, this may be because it is discomfiting to ponder that we cannot so easily buy off our enemies as we would like to think. Perhaps it is also for fear that lurking behind this astonishing little fact is an indictment of our present order. I don’t know. But I would love more of your thoughts on this.

I thought I could get UBL into the list because he had a Western-style technical education and grew up in a family with very strong international business and educational connections. On the other hand those things might mean very little in concrete terms in a Saudi university and in a family as populous as his. Maybe I’ll change “UBL and MA” to “the 9/11 hijackers.”

I agree that people want to force an interpretation on the situation that says that what everyone wants most fundamentally is a nice career and lots of consumer goods, so if we export democratic capitalism it’ll solve all problems for them just like it solved all problems for us.

“I agree that people want to force an interpretation on the situation that says that what everyone wants most fundamentally is a nice career and lots of consumer goods, so if we export democratic capitalism it’ll solve all problems for them just like it solved all problems for us.”—Jim Kalb

That passage—if I understood—reminds me of something.

Remember Wang Computers? It was something like the second or third biggest personal computer company in the U.S. for a time during the white-hot explosion of that industry in the 80s to early 90s. Mr. Wang had come here from China as a student or young professor or whatever it was, stayed on, made good, and climbed to the pinnacle of U.S. Big Business & Industry.

Chinese Communist Party Chairman Deng Hsiao-Ping, at the start of his economic liberalization policy in which he sought to introduce a small measure of free enterprise and limited capitalism into China in hope of giving it a mixed economic system in place of the disastrously failed orthodox-Maoist one, undertook to establish cordial relations with the most successful overseas Chinese businessmen and powerful captains of industry in places like Singapore and the West.

Nothing being more important or more cutting-edge than computers, Deng considered Wang an extremely important person to invite to Peking for an official visit.

There the Chinese-American CEO was wined, dined, treated like royalty, given all the guided VIP tours of the place, shown all the progress the communist government considered China to have made since the young Wang had left many decades previously, and so on, as Deng did his best both to impress and to establish a favorable personal rapport with this man whom he viewed as potentially very important for China.

Among the vignettes Wang later recounted was how Chairman Deng in one conversation had meticulously described all the economic progress the Communist Party had made in terms of boosting China’s industrial output, controlling overpopulation, feeding the people, educating them, providing healthcare, etc., and outlined for him the Party’s plans for future development.

Wang listened intently. When the Chairman had finished, he replied, “Yes … but … are the people happy?”

Wang then explained how he’d tried to convey to the Party Chairman the idea that ordinary people in their everyday lives don’t find most of their fulfillment in learning about favorable government economic statistics, or in serving bureaucracies as economic/laboring units, or in striving to comply with neverending governmental exhortations to self-sacrifice through working hard for the Party, etc., etc. People’s deepest fulfillment comes from such Marxism-unfriendly things as the personal worlds of self-advancement, family, children, religion, traditional beliefs and prejudices, traditional culture and community, and so on—things Marxism tends to frown on or suppress.

Wang was right, not only about the Chinese but about us in the West and Moslems in their world. Though we don’t have Marxism in the West we are more and more oppressed by a plague that is in ways closely related to Marxism, the “hyperrational” dictatorship of markets and bureaucracies which expects us to find our greatest fulfillment in the consumer society, pop culture, pluralism, “diversity,” multi-culti, liberalism, and the like, anything deeper being suppressed for the reason that traditions which bring us most satisfaction are not equally valued by everyone on the planet and therefore simply cannot be permitted.

So, as in China, our government feels it is doing great things, things it believes ought to please both us and conquered Moslems alike just as soon as we can impose them on the Moslems too.

“Yes … but … are the people happy?”