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.