Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism

Weigel is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre in Washington
DC and the author of many books exploring the relationship between faith and
culture. Here he brings his voice to the urgent debate that has arisen since September
11, 2001 and the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York, asking:
what are the right tools for winning the war against terror? In this
thought-provoking brief survey he examines the history of jihadism and the
weaknesses and strengths of the West in facing it. In this he leans heavily on
the work of two scholars of modern Islam, Lawrence Wright and Bernard Lewis.
His book is divided into three parts: understanding the enemy, rethinking
realism and deserving victory. It should be read by, among others, all
thoughtful atheists (not an oxymoron).

The war
against jihadism itself reflects a more fundamental war: the war between a
faith, Islam, followed by over a billion people around the world, that is
usually seen as impervious to reason, and the West, which increasingly trumpets
a reason divorced from faith. It is Weigel’s contention that the West cannot
win the war against terror unless and until it resolves its own internal
metaphysical conflicts. This is a battle of ideas as much as one of
conventional weaponry. Here the author’s potent analogy is the West’s approach
to Communism after 1945: we believed it was a bankrupt political system
compared to ours and we believed that ordinary people behind the Iron Curtain
would eventually come to know this if they did not do so already. Confidence,
patience and diplomacy were to prove us right.

Critics of
this analogy will state that a religion, especially one as ancient and
formidable as Islam, cannot be approached like a political system. No, but important
lessons can be learnt. At first we need to understand and respect it, which is difficult
when the US Government is dominated, as Weigel says, by a “genteel secularity”.
In the UK it is less genteel than aggressive; both are inadequate in facing the
problem. “Islam has given meaning and purpose to hundreds of millions of lives
that have been nobly and decently lived”, he states. What ideas of nobility and
decency can we offer to Muslims when our Western societies seem increasingly
dominated by secularism, consumerism and moral relativism and when we “do not
take religious ideas seriously as a dynamic force in the world’s history”?
Where we see “progress”, they are inclined to see decadence – and perhaps they
are not entirely wrong.

On a
personal note here, I take several Muslim pupils for private English tutoring.
During Lent I happened to have my Bible open on my desk. My pupils all remarked
on this with interest and approval; they were clearly comfortable in the
company of a fellow believer in a transcendental view of life, although
recognising the huge differences between Christianity and Islam.

Benedict XVI, in what has come to be seen notoriously as his “Regensburg
Address” but which, not insignificantly, was actually a lecture on “Faith, Reason
and the University” pointedly remarked that “a reason which is deaf to the
divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable
of entering the dialogue of cultures.” It is not widely known that, after the
immediate and immoderate reaction to his lecture in some Muslim quarters, the
Pope received an “Open Letter” in response to his challenge to dialogue, signed
by 38 prominent Islamic leaders around the globe, in which they distanced
themselves from jihadism. Western diplomacy, contends Weigel, needs to follow
the Pope’s lead.

To do this
with confidence we need, as the author says, to “reclaim the history of the
West”. We have allowed this history to be hijacked by vehement and articulate
atheists who dominate the media and who have persuaded the uninformed both that
the 18th century Enlightenment was the herald of all the modern democratic
freedoms we take for granted and that it was preceded by a long “dark ages” of
Christian superstition, religious bigotry and persecution. This is bias on a
big scale. Freedom actually began with the coming of Christianity and its
emphasis on the intrinsic worth and dignity of every human being. Enlightenment
thinkers built on the foundations of Christianity even as they and their
progeny were kicking away these foundations.

To appeal
to Muslim moderates, of whom there are millions behind the 38 who wrote to the
Pope, we have to demonstrate to them that the greatest achievements of the West
are not merely technological or scientific, important though these are. They
are, as Professor Roger Scruton says, “works of spiritual grace and high
culture”.  Some of them, such as the
magnificent Gothic cathedrals dotted around Europe, are detailed in the late
Kenneth Clarke’s fine TV series, Civilisation. What Weigel describes as our “self-imposed dhimmitude”, that is, our
self-abasement towards Muslims and our acquiescence to Muslim pressure, such
that in the UK we have financed mosques and madrassas that preach contempt for
our way of life, must be seen for what it is, moral cowardice, and rejected; we
have to believe our culture worth preserving – or, as Churchill so pugnaciously
put it during the last War, we have to “deserve” victory.

wryly observes that we are not going to “convert 1.2 billion Muslims into good
secular liberals.” As should be obvious by now in Iraq and Afghanistan, we
cannot also impose our own democratic systems on people who have never known
them and who, at least in Afghanistan, are essentially tribal. What we can and
must focus on is respect for pluralism and religious tolerance, respect for the
rule of law and commitment to persuasion, not coercion.  In Islam the fusion of temporal and religious
authority – the theocratic state – is an obstacle; there is no mention in the
Qur’an of “rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and rendering unto God
that which is God’s” which led in the West, albeit slowly, to an understanding
of the distinctive roles of church and state.

And yet the
jihadist tradition in Islam, the desire to compel worldwide submission to
Allah, an impersonal God of absolute will, is not the only tradition. After
9/11 I was reminded by friends of Islam’s one-time intellectual creativity,
openness to rational enquiry and to the influence of Greek philosophy. I would
remind them that Avicenna and Averroes died over 800 years ago; and Weigel
reminds us in these pages that a pitifully few Western books have been
translated into Arabic in the last 1000 years; indeed, that the Renaissance,
the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment all passed without effect in
the Islamic world. Nonetheless, he cites Bernard Lewis who points to a
different Muslim history that existed before Arab authoritarianism developed
momentum in the 18th century, hardening into jihad in the 20th: a tradition
that allowed consultation, limited responsible authority and government under

book raises the possibility of the jihadists obtaining nuclear power; this alone
makes the requirement of dialogue imperative. Commentators such as Alasdair
Palmer, reviewing Philip Bobbit’s book, Terror
and Consent: The Wars for the 21st Century
, take a depressingly
conventional view of this subject: death, for jihadists, is the point of the
struggle; their obtaining nuclear power within a decade is a terrifying
certainty rather than a terrifying possibility; and therefore America and her
allies must fight violence with (pre-emptive) violence. This book, though
supporting the US invasion of Iraq (if not its chaotic, unthought out
aftermath) describes an alternative strategy: to fight flawed and distorted
ideas with stronger and more convincing ideas, ideas that do not separate
reason from faith and that do not debase the proclamation “life, liberty and
the pursuit of happiness” of the founding fathers of America into life for some
but not others, moral licence and the pursuit of hedonism.

Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.


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