The West needs to re-moralise itself, or it will continue down a path of cultural weakness and decline.
It is not clear that the West has successfully met the challenge of 9/11. Worse: it is not clear that the West yet fully understands what the challenge is.
To understand 2001 we have to go back to 1989, the year of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was an historic moment that few had expected. What did it mean? It was then that two stories were born, with one of which we are familiar, the other of which we seem hardly to know or understand at all.
The first narrative was that the West had won. Communism had imploded. In the end, it failed to deliver the goods. People wanted freedom. They sought affluence. The Soviet Union had delivered neither. Politically it was repressive. Economically it was inefficient. For freedom you need liberal democracy. For affluence you need the market economy. 1989 marked the victory of both. From here on democratic capitalism would spread slowly but surely across the world. To adapt Francis Fukuyama’s phrase of the time, it was the beginning of the end of history.
The other narrative was quite different but has the advantage of so far being proved correct. Unlike Fukuyama’s, it was based not on Hegel but on the fourteenth century Islamic thinker Ibn Khaldun. We don’t know much about Ibn Khaldun in the West but we should. He was one of the truly great thinkers of the Middle Ages. He has every claim to be called the world’s first sociologist. Not for another three hundred years would the West produce a figure of comparable originality: Giambattista Vico. Both produced compelling accounts of the rise and fall of civilisations. Both knew what most people most of the time forget: that the greatest civilizations eventually fall. The reason they do so is not necessarily the rise of a stronger power. It is their own internal decay.
Most accounts of Al Qaeda focus on the intellectual influence of the twentieth century thinker and critic of the West, Sayyid Qutb. That influence was real. But the deeper story the leaders of Al Qaeda told in 1989, without which 9/11 is unintelligible, had less to do with Qutb and hatred of the West and its freedoms; much more to do with the key precipitating event of the fall of communism: the withdrawal, in February 1989, of the Soviet army from Afghanistan.
It was that event that set in motion the rapid collapse of one of the world’s two superpowers. It was achieved not by the United States and its military might, but by a small group of religiously inspired fighters, the mujahideen and their helpers. Ibn Khaldun’s theory was that every urban civilisation becomes vulnerable when it grows decadent from within. People live in towns and get used to luxuries. The rich grow indolent, the poor resentful. There is a loss of asabiyah, a keyword for Khaldun. Nowadays we would probably translate it as “social cohesion.” People no longer think in terms of the common good. They are no longer willing to make sacrifices for one another. Essentially they lose the will to defend themselves. They then become easy prey for the desert dwellers, the people used to fighting to stay alive.
That, so it seemed to those who read history that way, is what happened in Afghanistan. It was never possible for a small group to defeat a superpower by conventional means. But it could go on endlessly inflicting casualty after casualty until eventually the superpower – more like a lumbering elephant than a wounded lion – withdrew. The desert dwellers are hungrier, tougher and more ruthless than the city dwellers who long more than anything for a quiet life.
That was the calculation. The odd thing is, it worked. And those who had fought the Soviet Union looked on in wonder at the effect of their victory. For not only did the Russians withdraw. Within an extraordinarily short time their whole empire collapsed. Ibn Khaldun was right. The society had grown rotten from within. It had lost its asabiyah, its cohesion. It had lost the will to fight.
If that is what a small group of highly motivated religious fighters could do to one superpower, why not the other, America and the West? America could not be defeated on its own ground. But what if it could be tempted, provoked, into occupying the very same ground that had seen the humiliating withdrawal of the Soviet army, namely Afghanistan itself. To do so would require a truly massive provocation, one so shocking that it would make the Americans forget what everyone knew, that Afghanistan is a death trap that ultimately defeats all invading armies. That is when 9/11 was born.
The theory was that the Americans and the Russians might be unalike in every other respect, but this they shared: that they were advanced urban civilisations in which the social bond, asabiyah, had grown weak. They were no longer lean and hungry. They were overweight and lacked the capacity for sustained sacrifice. If America could be provoked into occupying Afghanistan, it could be defeated exactly as the Soviets had been, not by any decisive battle but by sustained asymmetric warfare. The proof was that American troops had withdrawn from Lebanon in 1984 and Somalia in 1994 under just such circumstances. They had no more staying power than the Russians. Like the Russians, within a decade they would be looking for an exit strategy. 9/11 was the attempt to lure the United States into Afghanistan, and it worked.
The aim of Al Qaeda never was the collapse of the West. It was the withdrawal of American troops from Saudi Arabia, together with larger aspirations for the revival of the Caliphate and the re-emergence of the Umma as a world power. But the collapse of the West was foreseen. It was not an aim but a consequence, and it followed from Ibn Khaldun’s theory of the decline and fall of civilisations.
Has it happened? Not yet. But ten years on, the United States has been humiliated into renegotiating its trillions of dollars of debt. Western economies, almost all of them, are ailing. The European Union is under strain, its future in doubt. There have been riots and looting on the streets of London and Manchester, just as there have been in recent years in France, Greece and Spain. The global economy looks far less stable than it did before the collapse of 2008. In Europe, following a series of scandals, bankers, politicians, journalists and even the police have been tried and found wanting. Those who read the runes of the future are turning their eyes eastward to India, China, and the fast-growing economies of south-east Asia. The West no longer looks invincible. As a narrative, the “end of history” has proved less predictive than the “decline of civilizations.” So far, Hegel 0, Ibn Khaldun 1.
The real challenge of 9/11 is not what it seemed at the time: Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, Sayyid Qutb and radical Islam. These were real and present threats, to be sure, but they were symptoms, not cause. The challenge was the underlying moral health of Western liberal democracies, their asabiyah, their sense of identity and collective responsibility, their commitment to one another and to the ideals that brought them into being. The counter-narrative of 1989 and the fall of Soviet communism saw it not as a victory for the West but as part of a law of history that says: all great civilisations eventually decline, and the West will be the next to go.
That view is not limited to enemies of the West. It was most recently stated by the Harvard historian Niall Fergusson in his Civilization: The West and the Rest. It was most powerfully formulated by Alastair MacIntyre in his masterwork, After Virtue. My favourite version of it comes from Bertrand Russell in the introduction to his History of Western Philosophy, speaking about the tendency of the most creative civilisations to self-destruct:
"What had happened in the great age of Greece happened again in Renaissance Italy. Traditional moral restraints disappeared, because they were seen to be associated with superstition; the liberation from fetters made individuals energetic and creative, producing a rare florescence of genius; but the anarchy and treachery which inevitably resulted from the decay of morals made Italians collectively impotent, and they fell, like the Greeks, under the domination of nations less civilized than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion."
Social cohesion is what Ibn Khaldun called asabiyah. And Russell’s description of Renaissance Italy fits precisely the postmodern, late capitalist West, with its urge to spend and its failure to save, its moral relativism and hyper-individualism, its political culture of rights without responsibilities, its aggressive secularism and resentment of any morality of self-restraint, and its failure to inculcate the habits of instinctual deferral that Sigmund Freud saw as the very basis of civilisation. Sayyid Qutb hated the West. Ibn Khaldun would have pitied the West. The pity is more serious than the hate.
There is a simple choice before us. Will we continue to act in ignorance of this other narrative? If so, we will replicate the fate of Greece in the second pre-Christian century as described by Polybius (“the people of Hellas had entered on the false path of ostentation, avarice and laziness”), and that of Rome two centuries later, when Livy wrote about “how, with the gradual relaxation of discipline, morals first subsided, as it were, then sank lower and lower, and finally began the downward plunge which has brought us to our present time, when we can endure neither our vices nor their cure.” If we carry on as we are going, the West will decline and fall.
There is, to my mind, only one sane alternative. That is to do what England and America did in the 1820s. Those two societies, deeply secularised after the rationalist eighteenth century, scarred and fractured by the problems of industrialisation, calmly set about remoralising themselves, thereby renewing themselves.
The three decades, 1820-1850, saw an unprecedented proliferation of groups dedicated to social, political and educational reform – building schools, YMCAs, orphanages, starting temperance groups, charities, friendly societies, campaigning for the abolition of slavery, corporal punishment and inhumane working conditions, and working for the extension of voting rights. Alexis de Tocqueville was astonished by what he saw in America and the same process was happening at the same time in Britain.
People did not leave it to government or the market. They did it themselves in communities, congregations, groups of every shape and size. They understood the connection between morality and morale. They knew that only a society held together by a strong moral bond, by asabiyah, has any chance of succeeding in the long run. That collective effort of remoralisation eventually made Britain the greatest world power in the nineteenth century and America in the twentieth.
It is a peculiarity of the Abrahamic monotheisms that they see, at the heart of society, the idea of covenant. Covenantal politics are politics with a purpose, driven by high ideals, among them the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the rule of justice and compassion, and concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. G.K. Chesterton called America a “nation with the soul of a church.” Britain used to be like that also. In the 1950s there was no television at certain hours on Sunday so as not to deter churchgoing. Sundays helped keep families together, families helped keep communities together, and communities helped keep society together. I, a Jew growing up in a Christian nation, did not feel threatened by this. I felt supported by it – much more than I do now in an ostensibly more tolerant but actually far more abrasive, rude and aggressive society.
What is unique about covenant is its seemingly endless possibility of renewal. It happened in the Bible in the days of Joshua, Josiah and Ezra. It happened in America between 1820 and 1850 in the Second Great Awakening. It happened in Britain at the same time through the great Victorian social reformers and philanthropists. Covenant defeats the law of entropy that says that all systems lose energy over time. It creates renewable energy. It has the power to arrest, even reverse, the decline and fall of nations.
None of us should be in any doubt as to the seriousness of what is at stake. Europe today is pursuing the chimera of societies without a shared moral code, nations without a collective identity, cultures without a respect for tradition, groups without a concern for the common good, and politics without the slightest sense of history. Ibn Khaldun, were he alive, would tell them precisely where that leads.
The question is not radical Islam but, does the West believe in itself any more? Is it capable of renewing itself as it did two centuries ago? Or will it crumble as did the Soviet Union from internal decay. “We have met the enemy,” said Pogo, “and he is us.” That is the challenge of 9/11. It’s about time we came together to meet it.
Jonathan Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. He is a life peer in the House of Lords. This article first appeared in the September issue of Standpoint and has been republished with permission.