Politics & Policy

The Closing of the Conservative Mind, Part I

Blindsided from the Right.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series.

Given the way the war on terror is going, and given the humiliating losses that conservatives and Republicans suffered in the midterm election, one might expect the Right to be open to a candid evaluation of what’s going wrong and how it might be fixed. My book The Enemy at Home offers a sympathetic critique of the conservative understanding of the Islamic world, together with a new vision and a new strategy that is sorely absent on the Right. My goal is to stimulate a lively and civil discussion so that we can reverse our political losses, win the American people to our side, and defeat the threat of Islamic radicalism.

I expected, in this book, to stir the angry passions of the Left. Any book with the subtitle “The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11” cannot expect to be well received by leftists. Sure enough, the New York Times and the Washington Post have raged against my book. Alan Wolfe portrayed me as a follower of bin Laden, and a senior editor of Esquire even threatened to fight me and send me to the hospital. I am constantly crossing swords with leftist professors and pundits who combine small-mindedness with viciousness, and so this line of attack was entirely expected.

Much stranger have been the petulant, even belligerent, attacks from the Right. Some conservatives, like George Gilder and David Klinghoffer, have praised The Enemy at Home. Others, like Mona Charen, Rod Dreher, and Stanley Kurtz, have respectfully disagreed with it while also praising aspects of it. But several conservative reviewers and pundits, including Victor Davis Hanson, Roger Kimball, Scott Johnson, Robert Spencer, and Peter Berkowitz, have harshly attacked the book and launched the most extravagant accusations against me. I am especially struck by their wild charges of ignorance and superficiality in my analysis. Having grown up in a country, India, that has 200 million Muslims — nearly as many as in the entire Middle East — and having studied the leading thinkers of radical Islam (Sayyid Qutb, Ayatollah Khomeini, Maulana Mawdudi, Ali Shariati, and so on), I have more than a passing familiarity with Islam and its practitioners — a lot more than they do, in fact. What I say may be flawed or wrongheaded, and I am happy to learn from my mistakes, but why the savagery of the attacks? What heresy have I committed that the angry men of the Right have drawn their daggers against me?

Who’s Blaming America?

Perhaps these conservative critics have uncovered massive errors of fact or logic in The Enemy at Home. Let us see. Scott Johnson of Powerline writes that “D’Souza simply lacks any evidence to sustain the charge” that the actions of the Left bear any responsibility for 9/11, but he can only get away with this accusation by refusing to discuss the evidence I do present. Victor Davis Hanson accuses me of joining Susan Sontag and Jerry Falwell, providing “another angle to the blame America game.” He charges me with an attempt to “justify the violence of the extremists” and accuses me of a strained effort to fault “millions of Americans” for 9/11. Contrary to Hanson I am not blaming “millions of Americans,” but rather am faulting particular liberal policies and actions taken by named individuals in power.

Sontag blamed 9/11 on “specific American alliances and actions.” Falwell said the attacks were God’s punishment for America’s sins. Both seemed to imply that America deserved it. But this is not what I say at all. My book asks a completely secular and reasonable question: Why did the guys who did 9/11 do it? Five years after 9/11, it’s not an illegitimate question. To ask it is not to “justify” the attacks any more than to ask whether British appeasement of Hitler led to his invasion of Poland is to justify that invasion. Explanation is not the same as justification.

Of course bin Laden and his co-conspirators bombed the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But what put them in a position to do it? How has radical Islam, once an isolated fringe, gained so much power and so many recruits in the Muslim world? What gave bin Laden and his allies the courage to attack the world’s sole superpower? What made them think they could get away with it? Hanson offers no explanation, merely proclaiming al Qaeda’s ideology “rambling” and “incoherent.”

Consider whether, without the Khomeini regime coming to power in Iran in 1979, 9/11 would have occurred. Radical Islam has been around since the 1920s, but for decades it was on the margins of power. Then in 1979 it captured a major state. Khomeini was the first Muslim leader to call America the Great Satan and to call for a worldwide revolution of Muslims committing martyrdom and jihad against the U.S. The Khomeini revolution paved the road to 9/11.

So how did we get Khomeini? When Jimmy Carter was elected in 1979 his liberal advisors told him that he could not consistently uphold human rights and support the Shah of Iran. Carter withdrew American support for the shah, and in trying to get rid of the bad guy, he got the worse guy. So here is a concrete way in which liberal foreign policy handed radical Islam control of its first major state.

Consider whether, without the weakness and inaction of the Clinton administration during the mid-to-late 1990s, 9/11 would have happened. Recall that after the Cold War, once the Soviet Union was no longer a threat, the Islamic radicals went back to their home countries, where they fought to overthrow their local governments, what they called the “near enemy.” Then they made a fateful decision to shift course and attack the “far enemy,” the United States.

Why? If you can’t defeat Mubarak in Egypt or the royal family in Saudi Arabia, what makes you think you can take on the world’s sole superpower? Bin Laden says that he suspected that America was weak and cowardly and could be attacked with impunity. So the radical Muslims launched a series of test strikes — from Khobar Towers to the bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa to the suicide attack on the U.S.S. Cole — to test their theory. And when in each case the Clinton administration failed to respond, or responded with pathetic ineffectiveness, this confirmed bin Laden in his suspicion of American pusillanimity. By his own account bin Laden says the radical Muslims were emboldened to conceive a grander strike, the one that we suffered on 9/11.

Skirting the Issue

Along the same lines as those advanced by Johnson and Hanson, Roger Kimball attributes to me the view that “the real enemy is…us” and loftily informs me that “the issue is not our failings but their terrorism.” Indeed, Kimball concludes, “the root cause of terrorism is terrorists,” which is about as coherent as saying “the root cause of poverty is poor people.” No prizes will be awarded for such insights. Kimball confesses his intellectual skepticism at my claim that “without the cultural left, 9/11 would not have happened.” Here are the reasons why he isn’t buying my theory:

According to D’Souza, the attack on the U.S.S. Cole didn’t really count as an act of terrorism, because the Cole, after all, is a warship. Come again? D’Souza frequently assures readers that Islam is not against modernity, science, or democracy, but is actually in favor of those phenomena — and capitalism too — appearances notwithstanding. Really? That is like saying Islam is a religion of peace because the Koran somewhere tells us so. More good news: Wahhabi Islam, far from being a “breeding ground of Islamic radicalism,” as you probably thought, is only a “breeding ground of Islamic obedience.” Oh, well, it’s all right then. It gets better. The aim of 9/11, D’Souza says, was not to kill civilians but merely to “strike out” at “symbols” of American military and economic power. Indeed 9/11 was a “special kind of reality show using martyrdom as a form of advertising and real people in the explosion scenes.” What can one say?

What one can say is that Kimball’s points, even if valid, have nothing to do with the point being discussed. I am making the case that the Left sowed the seeds of 9/11, and he proceeds to quarrel with claims that have nothing to do with that argument. One has the feeling that even here Kimball is out of his depth, because he constantly appeals to the prejudice of his audience (“as you probably thought”) and relies on jejune sarcasms (“Oh well, it’s all right then,” etc.) to compensate for his inability to formulate a counter-argument.

To take his points in order, though: Terrorism is defined as an attack on innocent civilians. Given that bin Laden declared war on America in 1996, al Qaeda’s assault on an American warship is not terrorism in the classic sense. This was an attack on a military target, akin to the Japanese kamikaze attacks on American ships during World War II. Second, I can find no pattern of denunciation of modernity, science, or capitalism in Islam. Indeed Sayyid Qutb praises science and urges Muslims to embrace it. The prophet Muhammad was, by profession, a merchant, and scholars such as Maxime Rodinson have pointed out that, historically, Islam has been quite friendly to capitalism. Finally as Noah Feldman has pointed out, the leading organizations of radical Islam today are the “loudest voices calling for greater democracy in nearly every Muslim country.” The reason for this, I suggest, is that the Islamic radicals have seen, with the electoral success of Hamas in the Palestinian territories and the Muslim Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections in Egypt, that they can use democracy as the means to come to power. Moreover, for me to say, as I do, that radical Muslims are not against modernity is not the same as asserting that Islam is a religion of peace, which I nowhere assert. (The Koran, like the Old Testament, has a number of passages recommending peace and others celebrating the massacre of the enemies of God.) I show that Wahhabism arose out of a pact between the cleric Wahhab and the tribal leader bin Saud to ensure that Muslims follow the religion of their rulers. So it is wrong to describe bin Laden, who is a renegade against the Saudi state, as a follower of Wahhabism, something that bin Laden himself has never claimed. Finally my description of 9/11 was aimed at showing how the attacks were designed to use modern media and communications to create terror in the minds of the American television audience.

<em>The Enemy at Home</em>, by Dinesh D’Souza


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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