Reading your revealing letter, I share your anguish over the recent turn of events in the Middle East and North Africa. But I do not know what to make of your words — “I’m tough, etc.”
I am least perturbed by hard questioning of Islam, or for that matter of any subject. If one’s faith is so fragile that hard questions might fragment it, then being relieved of such a faith should be better than holding on to it. My faith, however, is made of sterner stuff.
In taking your agnosticism similarly, I presume that none of my hard questioning will make you take refuge or comfort in some metaphysical explanation of politics or allude to supernatural causes. Your agnosticism demands that explanations of politics are material, that good and evil are viewed in terms of a utilitarian calculus. Since religion in general remains resistant to material explanations, it is best consigned to the domain of the irrational.
Yet you are tormented by the irrational. As you pose questions about Islam and Muslims, you are fearful — rightly, I may add — about “apocalyptically minded madmen like Khamenei and Ahmadinejad” in possession of nuclear weapons and unleashing another Holocaust.
You are dismissive of religion, and yet you want to know about “Islamic ideology.” But what you want to know about Islam and the Quran — you caution me that a “few gentle quotations from the Koran don’t count” — is confirmation of your view about religion in general and, in particular, Islam at this time in our history.
Bear with me, Roger, for I am not going to take an easy way out from your questions. I will come back to them, Muhammad, Islam, Quran, etc., and to what I set forth in my previous letter, by reminding you of thinking historically, or putting these matters in historical context. We barely began our conversation when you turned from politics to religion, and the questions you have posed cannot be answered, if they are to be meaningful, in the sort of “yes/no” or “agree/disagree” manner of a market study or an opinion poll.
As an agnostic you are, not surprisingly, sceptical of theology as speculation about what is unknown and unknowable, i.e. God; and you “see religions anthropologically and psychoanalytically.” Religion is consequential to you only to the extent it is part of our human experience, and explained naturally or rationally.
Your anguish is how to respond within the requirements of agnosticism to what constitutes the irrationality of Islam and Muslims. Both defy reason as you understand it — rational in the manner that a modern man explains the solar system, and understands his place and that of the earth in the vastness of “sextillions of stars in multiple universes.”
But this anguish is paradoxically unreasonable. The utilitarian calculus of an agnostic should dictate the response to those Muslims, with, as you write, their “unremitting rage against the West” resulting from technological inferiority. The threat is real, it continues to grow according to the material evidence available, and an agnostic’s response — unburdened by any qualm of a non-utilitarian nature in consideration of religion — should be either proportionate or greater to eliminate that threat.
Any moral equivocation, given the reality of the threat — no matter whether it is from an Ahmadinejad in possession of nuclear weapons or a Muslim suicide bomber convinced his martyrdom will instantly be rewarded with entrance to paradise (where seventy-two virgins will entertain his every whim into eternity) — should be viewed by an agnostic as irrational.
So why the anguish? Is it because, Roger, you are squeezed between two sets of irrationality — the moral equivocation in the West on the one side, and the irrationality of Islam and Muslims on the other?
Or could it be that this anguish has revealed a part of you, however miniscule, that remains credulous about man’s belief in the supernatural? When non-utilitarian moral consideration enters to influence man’s conduct, then the accounting is based on some higher principle derived from religion or metaphysics.
It will be ten years since 9/11, and the West remains divided about how to effectively and conclusively deal with those Muslims, or Islamists, who declared war against the West — as well as governments and states in the Arab-Muslim world that lend support materially to Islamists, or will not decisively eliminate them within their domain. Why is this so?
The 9/11 Commission Report (2004) states that “Islam is not the enemy.” A few paragraphs earlier, the authors of the Report write: “The catastrophic threat at this moment in history is more specific. It is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism — especially the al Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology[.]”
I found the Report to be a worthy document that puts Islamist terrorism in historical and political context for Americans. It provides analyses of personalities and events surrounding 9/11 and beyond that should have been required reading. I wonder how many Americans have read it.
Let me quote once more from the Report something that is also echoed in your letter:
Because the Muslim world has fallen behind the West politically, economically, and militarily for the past three centuries, and because few tolerant or secular Muslim democracies provide alternative models for the future, Bin Laden’s message finds receptive ears.
I find it odd that Rep. Peter King’s House Homeland Security Committee has to return to the subject of Islamist terrorism, and its reach inside America and among American Muslims, when a bipartisan 9/11 Commission co-chaired by a Democrat (Lee Hamilton) and a Republican (Thomas Kean) provided the American government and people quite a comprehensive account of what needs to be done.
We more or less agree, as you indicated in reply to my initial letter, that the overt weakness of the West is ominous. The controversy surrounding the hearings initiated by Rep. King seems to me more evidence of decline given the rancor and divisiveness within America when the Islamist threat is undeniable.
Since Islam is not America’s enemy and Islamists are at war with non-Islamist Muslims and the West, including Israel, then the simple calculus of threat — utilitarian and rational — demands an effective political and military strategy to effectively contain and eliminate Islamist terrorism and its ideology.
In an article for the Guardian published in February 2002, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher opined that “Islamic extremism today, like bolshevism in the past, is an armed doctrine. It is an aggressive ideology promoted by fanatical, well-armed devotees. And, like communism, it requires an all-embracing long-term strategy to defeat it.”
It is ten years and counting, and the West lacks an effective strategy to contain and eliminate the threat that the 9/11 Commission described carefully at length and Thatcher explained succinctly. I have now twice used the word contain, and I have done this to recall for you George Kennan, diplomat and historian. Kennan, an American patriot, is one of my intellectual heroes. But John Lukacs, Kennan’s recent biographer, wrote with some sadness how few Americans had read him, and even fewer knew about him.
Less than a year after the guns fell silent in Europe at the end of the Second World War, Kennan just about singlehandedly set the course for America and the West in dealing with the threat of expansionist Soviet Communism. In his “long telegram” of February 22, 1946, from Moscow to his superiors in Washington, Kennan laid out the ground for what became the “containment” strategy towards the Soviet Union for the duration of the Cold War until the communist power collapsed.
Why could not a similar strategy designed to contain Islamist terrorism and the colluding powers and interests of the Arab-Muslim world be put in place by America and her allies? Such a policy would indicate the seriousness of the West about the Islamist threat to all Muslims, and a commitment on utilitarian grounds of an offensive against Islamists everywhere, including inside America, without conflating the nature and the source of the threat with Islam seen distinctly as a religion.
Consequently, those such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who speak, organize, and mobilize Muslims politically by appeal to Islam in public — including through mosques — would be clearly identified as Islamists and enemy of the West. Such a policy would place the responsibility on Muslims in the West to dissociate themselves from Islamists. The precedent for this was the requirement during the Cold War years for Russians and East Europeans to dissociate themselves from communists and communist parties, or fall under the surveillance of the state.
I imagine as an agnostic you would support such a policy. As a Muslim I would feel safer under such circumstances knowing the West takes the war declared by Islamists seriously, and is committed to win that war with the necessary measures needed, including a counter-ideological offensive against Islamism.
Let me end here with the following observation (I will expand on it in a future letter): the extent to which the West has denuded itself of its own religious heritage has disarmed it at home and abroad of the weapons it needs to deal with religious fanatics of any faith tradition — including not only its own but, presently, with the fanatics of Islam and their apologists at war with the West.