Politics & Policy

Land of The Free

The Islamic critique cuts deep, but there is an answer.

Behind the physical attacks on the West and its allies is an intellectual attack–an assault not just on what America does but also on what America is. So far the U.S. government’s military response–in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and elsewhere–has been reasonably effective against terrorism and its sponsors. But our intellectual response has been weak. This matters, because ultimately it is not enough to shut down the al Qaeda training camps. We must also stop the “jihad factories,” the mosques and educational institutions that are turning out tens of thousands of aspiring terrorists and suicide bombers. We cannot kill all these people; we have to change their minds. Yet America is making few converts in the Muslim world.

The problem is that we have not effectively answered the strongest version of the Islamic critique of the United States. Usually Americans seek to defend their society by appealing to its shared principles. Thus our leaders remind us that America is a free society, or a prosperous society, or a diverse and pluralistic culture, or a nation that gives women the same rights as men. The most intelligent Islamic critics acknowledge all this, but they dismiss it as worthless triviality.

One of the leading theoreticians of Islamic fundamentalism is the Egyptian thinker, Sayyid Qutb, who has been called “the brains behind bin Laden.” Like the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center, Qutb was a man who lived in the West and knew its ways. After studying in America, he wrote a book called The America That I Saw in which he argued that his familiarity with the United States was his basis for rejecting it. Qutb wrote that he was shocked by the rampant prejudice of Americans, especially toward Arabs and Muslims. He professed outrage at the materialism and sexual promiscuity of American culture. Even the church, Qutb commented, has become a place for amusement and social interaction rather than worship.

In his later writings, Qutb alleged that America used to be Christian; now it is pagan. The Muslim believer, he wrote, has no reason to envy or emulate the ways of America; rather, true Muslims should feel contempt for those ways. “The believer from his height looks down at the people drowning in dirt and mud.”

How, in Qutb’s view, did America reach its sorry state? One problem, Qutb said, is that American and indeed Western institutions are fundamentally atheist, based on a clear rejection of divine authority. “Democracy” and “capitalism” are in Qutb’s view atheistic ideas. When democrats say that sovereignty flows from the people, this means that the people–not God–are the rulers. So democracy is a form of idol worship. So, too, Qutb insisted that capitalism, which is based on the notion that the market and not God is the best arbitrator of value, is a form of idolatry.

A second problem, Qutb wrote, is that the core principle of America is liberty–the right to determine one’s own destiny–and this, he argued, is a highly defective principle. The reason is that liberty can be used well or liberty can be used badly. Given what Immanuel Kant called “the warped timber of humanity,” the human propensity for selfishness and vice, Qutb argued that freedom will often be used badly.

For evidence of this, he said, just look at what goes on in America. Qutb pointed to divorce, family breakdown, homosexuality, promiscuity, and the triviality and vulgarity of American popular culture as proof that human beings cannot be expected to use freedom except to gratify their basest impulses. Indeed, Qutb sternly charged that America is materially prosperous but morally rotten. In a famous formulation that has stirred up widespread debate in the Muslim world, Qutb insisted that the West is a once-religious civilization that has now been reduced to what he termed jahiliyya–the condition of social chaos, moral diversity, sexual permissiveness, polytheism, unbelief, and idolatry that was said to characterize the Bedouin tribes before the advent of Islam.

Qutb’s alternative to America and the West is Islam, which in his book Social Justice in Islam he terms “an unparalleled revolution in human thinking” that provides the only solution to “this unhappy, perplexed, and weary world.” Islam, Qutb emphasized, is not merely a moral code or set of beliefs; it is a way of life based upon the divine government of the universe. The very term “Islam” means “submission” to the authority of Allah. This worldview requires that religious, economic, political, and civil society be based on the Koran, the teachings of the prophet Muhammad, and the Sharia or Islamic law. Islam regulates religious belief and practice, but also the administration of the state, the conduct of war, the making of treaties, divorce and inheritance, property rights and contracts. In short, the advocates of Islamic fundamentalism like Qutb seek to bring the whole framework of human life under divine–which is to say Islamic–supervision.

Qutb admits that notions of “submission” and obedience may sound alien to Western ears. In his view, this is because Western society is based on freedom whereas Islamic society is based on virtue. Qutb gives an example of what he means by Islamic virtue. There is a story in the Islamic classical tradition about a man and a woman who came to the prophet Muhammad and said, “Messenger of Allah, purify us.” Muhammad asked, “From what am I to purify you?” They replied, “From adultery.” Muhammed asked the two people whether they were insane or drunk. Assured that they were not, Muhammad asked them again, “What have you done?” They confessed that they had committed adultery. Then Muhammad gave the order, and the two were stoned to death. While the couple was being buried, onlookers scorned them, but Muhammad chided the scoffers. The couple had repented, he said, and now they were with Allah.

“This is Islam,” Qutb wrote. Analyzing the incident, he pointed out that no one had witnessed the adultery, and the prophet initially sought to attribute the couple’s confession to the influence of alcohol or mental disturbance. Still, they had persisted. Finally Muhammad had no choice but to have them stoned in accordance with God’s law. Qutb posed an interesting question: why did the couple demand to be stoned? His answer: “It was the desire to be purified of a crime of which none save Allah was cognizant. It was the shame of meeting Allah unpurified from a sin which they had committed.”

This, in brief, is Qutb’s defense of Islamic theocracy. Islamic societies may be poor, Qutb admitted, but at least they are seeking to implement the will of God. Even if they are failing at this, Qutb said, at least they are trying. And that–he concluded–makes Islamic society superior to Western society.

How should we in America evaluate, and answer, Qutb’s critique? We need to take Qutb’s views seriously, partly because they are taken seriously in the Islamic world, and partly because for all his vehemence, Qutb is raising deep and fundamental questions. Indeed in some respects the Islamic critique as exemplified by Qutb is similar to the critique that the classical philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, made of freedom. The classical thinkers would have agreed with Qutb that virtue, not freedom, is the ultimate goal of a good society. And in saying this they would be quite right. How, then, can the Islamic argument against America be answered on its own terms?

Let us concede at the outset that in a free society freedom will often be used badly. The Islamic critics have a point when they deplore our high crime and illegitimacy rates and the triviality and vulgarity of our popular culture. Indeed some Americans may be tempted to say, “The Muslims have a point about Jerry Springer and Howard Stern. If they will agree to stop bombing our buildings, in exchange for us sending them Springer and Stern to do with as they wish, why not make the deal? We could even throw in some of Springer’s guests.”

But on a less facetious note, we should not be surprised that there is a considerable amount of vice, license, and vulgarity in a free society. Freedom by definition includes freedom to do good or evil, to act nobly or basely. Given the warped timber of humanity, freedom becomes the forum for the expression of human flaws and weaknesses. On this point Qutb and his fundamentalist followers are quite correct.

But if freedom brings out the worst in people, it also brings out the best. The millions of Americans who live decent, praiseworthy lives deserve our highest admiration because they have opted for the good when the good is not the only available option. Even amid the temptations that a rich and free society offers, they have remained on the straight path. Their virtue has special luster because it is freely chosen. The free society does not guarantee virtue any more than it guarantees happiness. But it allows for the pursuit of both–a pursuit rendered all the more meaningful and profound because success is not guaranteed but has to be won through personal striving.

By contrast, the theocratic and authoritarian society that Islamic fundamentalists advocate undermines the possibility of virtue. If the supply of virtue of insufficient in free societies, it is almost nonexistent in Islamic societies, because coerced virtues are not virtues at all. Consider the woman in Afghanistan or Iran who is required to wear the veil. There is no real modesty in this, because the woman is being compelled. Compulsion cannot produce virtue; it can only produce the outward semblance of virtue.

Indeed, once the reins of coercion are released, as they were for the 9/11 terrorists, the worst impulses of human nature break loose. Sure enough, the deeply religious terrorists spent their last days in gambling dens, bars, and strip clubs, sampling the licentious lifestyle they were about to strike out against. In this respect they were like the Spartans who, Plutarch tells us, were abstemious in public but privately coveted wealth and luxury. In theocratic societies such as Afghanistan under the Taliban or Iran today, the absence of freedom signals the absence of virtue.

This is the argument that Americans should make to people in the Islamic world. It is a mistake to presume that Muslims would be totally unreceptive to it. Islam, which has common roots with Judaism and Christianity, respects the autonomy of the individual soul. Salvation for Muslims, no less than for Jews and Christians, is based on the soul choosing freely to follow God. We can make the case to Muslims that freedom is not a secular invention; rather, freedom is a gift from God. Moreover, it is not the case that Islamic fundamentalists care about virtue while we in the West care only about freedom. We, too, care about virtue; like them, we seek the good society; but we disagree with the Islamic fundamentalists about the best means to achieve this goal. In the Western view, freedom is the necessary precondition for virtue. Without freedom, there is no virtue. I believe this is an argument that well-meaning Muslims would have to consider.

The arguments on behalf of freedom, and of America, are not only for the benefit of Muslims in the Arab world; they are also for the benefit of people in America and the West. To help counter the anti-Americanism that we see from Europeans and sometimes even from Americans, we can confidently show our allies, our citizens, and our idealistic young people that America is not simply richer, more varied, and more tolerant, it is also morally superior to the fundamentalists’ version of Islamic society. It was Edmund Burke a long time ago who wrote, “To love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” Burke’s point is that the highest form of patriotism is not based on the dogmatic assertion, “My country, right or wrong.” Nor is the highest form of patriotism based on loving your country simply because it is yours. Rather, the highest form of patriotism is based on loving your country because it is good.

In my view America, for all its flaws and weaknesses, can meet Burke’s test. America merits a rational patriotism that can confront, and answer, the strongest criticisms of this country. Ultimately America is worthy of our love and sacrifice because, more than any other society, it makes possible for its citizens the good life, and equally important, the life that is good.

Dinesh D’Souza, the Rishwain Scholar at the Hoover Institution, is the author of What’s So Great About America.

Dinesh D'SouzaDinesh D’Souza is a writer, scholar, and public intellectual. He is the author of America: Imagine A World Without Her, in which he explores the landscape of a world in ...


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