Politics & Policy

The Closing of the Conservative Mind, Part II

Rethinking Islamic radicalism.

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a four-part series. The first can be read here

I now turn to the theme in The Enemy at Home that is the most original and has stirred up the most controversy. Once again let us approach the subject through the accusations of my critics. Blogger Dean Barnett thinks I am “dangerously misguided and dangerously ignorant” for attributing 9/11 to religious and cultural decadence in the West. “The radical Islamic world doesn’t hate us because our TV shows are too racy or our women too provocative…Specifically, the haters at issue loathe us because we’re not Muslims.” This is just ignorant prejudice masquerading as scholarship.

Powerline’s Scott Johnson informs his readers that my book “shows no familiarity with important accounts of the evolution of al Qaeda such as Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon’s Age of Sacred Terror, Richard Miniter’s Losing Bin Laden, and most recently Lawrence Wright’s Looming Tower.” It takes a Midwestern lawyer who blogs in his spare time to cite three semi-popular books of varying quality, but not a single scholarly work, in order to establish the real motives of bin Laden and the 9/11 conspirators. Far more valuable than the books that Johnson cites are the works of serious scholars like Fawaz Gerges, Ibrahim Abu-Rabi, and Gilles Kepel, as well as the accounts of knowledgeable figures like Montasser al-Zayyat. This last man, a former associate of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote an insider account of why Zawahiri and bin Laden made their fateful decision to shift from attacking their own governments to attacking the United States.

Besides, why not rely on bin Laden’s own statements (recently collected in a book edited by Bruce Lawrence), or read Zawahiri’s own Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner? I have read the collected sermons of Khomeini, going back to the 1930s, and have studied several books and writings by the Egyptian theorist Sayyid Qutb, who has been called “the brains behind Bin Laden.” I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in expecting Johnson, if he wants to expose my ignorance, to cite some authoritative sources besides what he could find on the front shelf of Barnes and Noble. I am well acquainted with the three authors Johnson cites, and his claim that I show “no familiarity” with their accounts can easily be exposed as false by checking my text and footnotes, where Benjamin and Simon are cited more than once, and where The Age of Sacred Terror is specifically footnoted (Ch. 7, footnote 5).

Why this feeble effort to challenge my reading of bin Laden and the Islamic radicals? Because I provide extensive citations from bin Laden as well as the leading thinkers of radical Islam to challenge the conventional accounts favored on both the Left and the Right. I show that the Islamic radicals are not solely motivated by rage over American foreign policy. Nor is it accurate to say, as President Bush has done, that “they hate us for our freedom.” In fact, radical Islam’s primary claim is that “Islam is under attack” and that America is the global leader of the unbelievers, what bin Laden terms the “head of the snake.” The radical Muslims charge that America is not a Christian society but an atheist one, and it is imposing its atheism and social immorality on the Muslim world, undermining the Muslim religion, weakening the Muslim family, and corrupting the innocence of Muslim children. This is a central theme of Islamic radicalism, evident from bin Laden’s “Letter to America” issued after 9/11, and obvious to everyone who makes even a cursory study of the works of Khomeini and Qutb. The charge of our enemy is not that we are too free, but that we refuse to allow the Islamic world to freely determine its own destiny. To cite al-Zawahiri, “The freedom we want is not the freedom to use women as a commodity to get clients, win deals or attract tourists; it is not the freedom of AIDS and an industry of obscenities and homosexual marriages; it is not the freedom of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.” This is not an objection to freedom itself but to how radical Muslims allege we use our freedom.

Understanding the Radicals

Now it may well be true, as Dean Barnett says, that the hatred of the radical Muslims for us is so great as to make them incorrigible. Nowhere do I suggest that we try to persuade them, or to change our way of life to appease the radicals. The question I am getting at is a different one: How have the radical Muslims, who were a tiny minority in the Muslim world for decades, been so successful of late in recruiting traditional Muslims to their cause? The traditional Muslims are the majority in the Muslim world. Yet they have been losing ground to radical Islam in virtually every Muslim country.

I offer several chapters of supporting evidence to show that the excesses of American popular culture, together with liberal values projected abroad, are producing a “blowback” of resistance, not only from the Muslim world, but also from the traditional cultures of Asia and Africa. A popular slogan across Asia today is “Modernization without Westernization.” What this means is that many people in non-Western countries want prosperity and technology but don’t want what they perceive as the permissive and degrading values of Western popular culture. Muslim countries are probably the most religious, traditional societies in the world today, and there the revulsion against Western decadence is even stronger than elsewhere. So this is a charge that the radical Muslims exploit.

Stanley Kurtz concedes that “D’Souza is undoubtedly correct to finger the global spread of our ‘liberated’ post-sixties culture as a factor in the culture war.” Then he writes, “But the only factor? That sort of mono-causality is unconvincing.” Yes, it’s unconvincing, and nowhere do I claim that cultural blowback is the only cause of Muslim anti-Americanism. Robert Spencer admits that “jihadists do use the depravity of American culture as a recruiting tool,” but then goes on to say that “this is more of a pretext.” Spencer fails to inquire why this “pretext” has struck such a resonant chord among traditional Muslims. Spencer knows as well as I do that by portraying America as an atheist, immoral society, radical Islam has found a receptive ear among traditional Muslims, and this has increased the recruitment of al Qaeda and other likeminded organizations.

“But even if the radical Muslims are truly enraged by American decadence and see it as an assault on traditional Muslim values,” Mona Charen writes, “By what stretch of the imagination do they take suicide attacks as a response?” Like several of my critics on the Right, Charen seems to be offended that I would ascribe any rationality to the terrorist enemy and its recruits. Think about it this way. What would cause an ordinary Muslim in Islamabad or Riyadh to go to his death in order to strike out against America? Because the Palestinians don’t have a state? I doubt it. Because of sheer envy of the West’s affluence? Unlikely. Because of a blind hatred of freedom? Absurd. Here’s a more plausible explanation. Tell a pious Muslim that the Great Satan is out to destroy his religion and undermine his family and destroy the innocence of his children, and now you have a believable motive for why Muslims would consider himself called to jihad against the United States. But somehow to assert, as I have done, that Muslim extremists have a rationale that they are using to convince other Muslims, greatly upsets certain conservatives who have invested a lot of intellectual energy in arguing that the terrorists are simply evil and do not need to be listened to or understood in any way.

A Non-point

Several of my critics, from Charen to Spencer to Kurtz to Berkowitz, have pointed out that Sayyid Qutb, the leading theoretician of radical Islam, came to America in the 1940s. Berkowitz writes, “Qutb famously was scandalized by the popular culture he encountered at a church social in America in the late 1940s, two decades, on D’Souza’s own account, before the emergence in the 1960s of the contemporary cultural left.” Berkowitz and others cite this point as though it were perfectly obvious and therefore evidence that I am manifestly obtuse. His reasoning is that radical Muslims like Qutb hated us long before the rise of liberal permissiveness, so clearly the cultural Left had nothing to do with the rise of radical Islam. Q.E.D.

This is hardly the big point that these critics think they have scored. The fact is that most traditional Muslims did not take Qutb seriously in the 1940s and 1950s, and his reputation was confined to the precincts of radical Islam. Numerous scholars, from Bernard Lewis to Rashid Khalidi, have pointed out that America was quite popular in the Muslim world during that period, when American prosperity was seen as producing a decent society. Radical Islam had great trouble getting recruits during that era.

But Qutb has become increasingly relevant as American popular culture has grown increasingly permissive and shocking to the sensibilities of traditional people around the world. Qutb is read today against the backdrop of what Muslims see in today’s America, not 1950s America. In fact, he is now viewed as a kind of prophet, someone who decades ago foresaw the rot behind America’s shiny image. So Qutb now has “crossover” appeal to traditional Muslims, and rather than dismissing him as a crank and a fool, we should be studying him to better understand what we are up against.

Or, instead, we could just conclude that Qutb is a fanatic, just as are almost all Muslims, and then leave it at that.

<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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