Everyone wants to pin a label on what we’re doing or about to do. Andrew Sullivan exclaims that this is a religious war in the aptly titled essay “This is a Religious War.” Francis Fukuyama clings to the proposition, first put forward in an essay “The End of History?” that this is still the end of history. Fareed Zakaria disagrees, siding with Samuel Huntington’s argument in The Clash of Civilizations that this is, in fact, a clash of civilizations.
The first thing we can conclude from these arguments, and others, is that it pays to put your thesis in the title of your article (although it wouldn’t be so good if everybody followed this advice. “The Will to Power,” for example, might have been named “Burning Sensations When I Pee Make Me Angry.” Okay, okay, I know that’s not fair.).
The argument — at least the interesting one — seems to be between those who think Islam itself is a “bad” ideology (you can take down the quotation marks yourself if you want) logically compelling its more zealous adherents to do bad things. On the other side are those who think the Middle East is a petri dish of social pathologies and corrupt regimes where a small minority’s will to power (and burning sensations) exploits Islam the same way Hitler & Co. used German nationalism and social resentment to turn the country into a murder machine.
Robert Wright falls into this camp, essentially arguing that the issue isn’t so much that the Koran encourages un-modern things but that un-modern people tend to follow the Koran. In my own defense, I have been making this argument for a while (See: “History Makes a Comeback,” “Exorcising Religion,” or my recent syndicated column — which prompted CAIR, the Council of American-Islamic Relations to launch an e-mail campaign against me.)
But I’ve come to disagree with Wright — and myself — on one important issue. He seems to see all religions as interchangeable. I clumsily made a similar argument. But, after further consideration — and ample feedback — I want to amend my position a bit. Yes, some awful things have been done in the name of Christianity over the last 2,000 years. But if you believe ideas have consequences (as Richard Weaver argued they do in — you guessed it — Ideas Have Consequences) then you have to believe that the nonviolent message of Christianity matters. And yes, the Jewish Bible is full wrath-and-vengeance stuff (which, ironically, medieval Christians invoked when they wanted to kill Jews), but Judaism’s core message is hardly that. And, regardless, Judaism isn’t a proselytizing religion either by sword or by door-to-door pamphleteering, which takes the motivation for conquering and killing people out of the equation.
You simply cannot read Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, or Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash and not at least concede that what a civilization believes about itself matters. But when I read the debates and arguments here on NRO (between David Forte and Daniel Pipes, by Michael Ledeen and John Derbyshire) or even between Andrew Sullivan and Robert Wright, I can’t help but shake the feeling that this argument’s been had before.
Back to the Future
Indeed, the modern conservative movement was born out of a similar fight. Back in the day, conservatives — mostly around National Review OnDeadTree (or DeadSapling in those days) — launched a determined argument against liberals about the nature of the Soviet menace. It wasn’t an argument between anti-Communists and pro-Communists, but between the strongly anti-Communist and the weakly anti-Communist. Giants like Frank Meyer (cue cheering sounds on audio track) Willi Schlamm, James Burnham, and of course, the big guy himself, William F. Buckley were arrayed against “realists” and other anti-Communist liberals, like George Kennan, Arthur Schlesinger, etc. Kennan was the author of the famous “Mr. X” article in Foreign Affairs, entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” (it was called Mr. X because it was written anonymously, not because it contained a lot of porn). The article is widely credited to be the founding document of the West’s “containment” strategy. The essential insight of the essay was that the Soviet Union, while suffused with a pernicious modern ideology, would nonetheless have the same ambitions as Tsarist Russia. Moreover, given time, the historic Russian spirit would eventually reject the soulless edifice of Marxism-Leninism and tear the system apart. Hence, the West shouldn’t try to topple the Soviets, but merely contain them until the centrifugal forces of Communism’s own internal contradictions did the work for us.
The conservatives hated this argument. As many of the early National Review conservatives were former Communists (James Burnham, Frank Meyer, Whittacker Chambers), they believed they understood the threat of Communism better than naïve liberals. The liberal, argued Meyer, “neither believes in a good for which to fight, nor credits to the enemy the possibility of unstinting devotion to an evil for which it is prepared to fight, come what may.” The conservatives believed they were alone in their understanding that Communism was a religion of power that would never be satisfied by anything less than total domination. Liberalism, according to James Burnham, was the ideology of “Western suicide” because it felt it could accommodate the monster by feeding it our body parts slowly. The conservatives favored “rollback” over containment; don’t cage the monster, kill it.
The conservatives were, of course, right that Communism was a great evil. Whether they were right that rollback was the better option is an argument for another day. But one thing that the conservatives definitely got wrong, though perhaps only in a semantic sense, was the idea that the Cold War was a war between the West and the East. It was actually more of a Civil War among different factions of Western Civilization. Despite what the various bozos in Post-Colonial Studies might suggest, Marxism is a Western ideology (which is why it’s so funny to listen to so many Third World Marxists, like Rigoberta Menchu, denounce the “West” when they are actually wearing our ideological hand-me-downs).
The good news — for now — is that there is no such argument between conservatives and liberals. For the first time since, at least, the end of the Cold War liberals understand a serious threat to our way of life the same way conservatives do. Robert Frost’s barb that “a liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in an argument” no longer applies. Liberals have no romantic illusions about the Taliban. They understand Osama bin Laden wants to destroy what is good about America.
Oh sure, there are Leftist grifters out there, eager to spray cider in our ears about the meaning of “the West” or “evil” or even more eager to denounce America. But they have no part in the debate, and in that sense we are in better shape than we were during the Cold War.
A Real War Between West and East
This morning, while driving the missus to work, I listened to a segment on NPR about how the Taliban is hanging on to power not so much because of the popularity of their radical Islamic views, but because they are Pashtuns, the majority ethnicity in Afghanistan. The Pashtun tribal leaders are falling back on tribal loyalties and since the Taliban are Pashtuns too, they’re sticking with them for the time being. This is what I’m talking about. Islamic fundamentalism sits on top of Arab and Muslim culture the same way Kennan noted Communism rested atop Russian culture. Of course, the Koran informs that culture, probably more than the Bible informs Western culture. Contrary to what Wright suggests, Christian theology with its “render unto Caesar” strictures has long made room for a City of God and a City of Man (and Judaism, always ambiguous on even the existence of an afterlife, explicitly rejects much of the self-denial of Christianity and Islam. Hence the toast “l’chaim!” or “to life!”). The Muslim world never invested much in such ideas.
But culture and religion are not the same thing. I still can’t help but believe that if Islamic countries could get their acts together economically and democratically, the religious stuff would fall into place. This is a much tougher proposition than the Cold War, because Communism was a soulless, life-denying philosophy which runs counter to all cultures. Islamic fundamentalism in many ways runs with the grain of Arab culture. Its nostalgia appeals to the bruised egos of a civilization which took the wrong path at the crossroads of history. Its destructive nihilism and hostility to women appeals to the frustrations of young men (in fact, no offense meant, but I really find it profoundly troubling that Islamic fundamentalism explicitly says do the “right” thing — i.e. murder — not solely because it is right but because you can get laid with 72 virgins. Talk about an ideology in need of a “Mr. X” article).
A couple years ago, I argued that various Third World cultures should be smashed (See: “Smashing the Third World (scroll down)). Predictably, a bunch of know-nothings called me a racist. But, I still believe that. As the fortune cookies say, that which doesn’t bend must break. These cultures need to be shattered — through globalization, through trade, and through the justified application of force if necessary — into the modern world. We did it to militaristic Japan, and the Japanese are no less Japanese today for it. But they are democratic and peaceful (perhaps too peaceful). We did not depose the emperor, but we did destroy the culture that made him a threat.
The same must be done in the Middle East. By its nature, it’s nearly impossible to destroy a religion. But you can destroy the culture that makes such a religion a threat.