Toleration is of all ideas the most modern.
—Walter Bagehot, 1872

In my eyes the west is a perpetual aggressor.
—Arnold Toynbee, 1961

If one allows the infidels to continue playing their role of corrupters on Earth, their eventual moral punishment will be all the stronger. Thus, if we kill the infidels in order to put a stop to their [corrupting] activities, we have indeed done them a service. For their eventual punishment will be less.
—Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, 1984

Beauty contests are not usually occasions fraught with political significance. But the 2002 Miss World contest, scheduled to be held in Nigeria, was an exception. The Muslim population in Nigeria was unhappy about the contest to begin with: imagine allowing women to parade around in public clad in evening gowns instead of burkas! When the Nigerian journalist Isioma Daniel suggested that the Prophet Muhammad might have liked to marry one of the contestants, the grumbling unhappiness erupted into a murderous fury. Enraged Muslims (why does that seem like a pleonasm?) rioted in the city of Kaduna. They destroyed the offices of This Day, the paper that published Daniel’s speculation, and proceeded to kill some five hundred people, ripping Christian women and children from cars and burning them. When the rampage was over, another thousand-odd were left injured and twelve thousand homeless. Some cleric duly pronounced a fatwa against the hapless Daniel, who managed to flee. Meanwhile the Miss World pageant was transferred to London.

Of course, this seems like—indeed, it is—business as usual these days. Rampaging Muslims, fatwas, and denunciations of the West as “the Great Satan” are a familiar fact of life. They have been at least since the late 1980s when the Ayatollah Khomeini ventured into literary criticism and pronounced a death sentence on Salman Rushdie because someone told him that The Satanic Verses was blasphemous. What is odd, what is significant, is how normal this deeply abnormal state of affairs seems to us now. Where, as Bob Dole famously asked, is the outrage?

Reflecting on the massacre in Nigeria, Mark Steyn touched on the crucial issue:

When was the last time a mob of Jews or Christians or Buddhists tore children from cars and burned them to death? A while back, I saw Terrence McNally’s ghastly Broadway jerk-off, Corpus Christi, in which a gay Jesus rhapsodizes about the joys of anal intercourse with Judas. The play was an abomination, and deserves all the abuse discriminating theater-goers can heap upon it. But oddly enough, I didn’t feel an urge to slaughter perfect strangers, to ram a schoolbus, drag the little moppets from it, douse them in gasoline, and get my matchbook out.

No, indeed. But why? Is it just that we do things differently in New York and London?

In 1996, the political scientist Samuel Huntington published The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. A much expanded version of an article that appeared in Foreign Affairs in 1993, The Clash of Civilizations was and continues to be hugely influential. Huntington’s thesis that, in the post-Cold-War world, the bi-polar conflict between America and the Soviet Union had given way to conflicts among some eight civilizations was catnip to the many observers who predicted the eclipse of the nation state. Huntington had something for everyone. His argument is supported by dazzling erudition. But I suspect that much of the book’s popularity derived from its autumnal mood, its Toynbee-esque contention that the West was a “fading” civilization whose power—economic, social, military—had peaked and was now on the long, circuitous road to decline. Many observers swelled to his oft-repeated warnings about “the West’s universalist pretensions,” the idea that “peoples in all societies want to adopt Western values, institutions, and practices.” At the same time, conservatives applauded Huntington’s attack on “the divisive siren call of multiculturalism” and his insistence that “The futures of the United States and of the West depend upon Americans reaffirming their commitment to Western civilization.” The prominence Huntington gave to the resurgence of Islamic extremism assured that The Clash of Civilizations enjoyed a new lease on life in the aftermath of 9/11.

The reprise was justified. If nothing else, the atrocities of 9/11 dramatized a clash of civilizations. Whatever the limitations of Huntington’s argument, his call for a renewed commitment to the values of Western civilization has a special resonance at a time when those values are being assaulted not merely with words but with the engines of terrorist hatred. Huntington has a fair amount to say in passing about the core values of the West. What he does not present is the explicit contrast between the vision of world as embodied in Western civilization and its noisiest rival, the world according to Islam. One of the most thoughtful attempts to do this is contained in The West and the Rest, the brief, eloquent new book by the English philosopher Roger Scruton.[1]

The West and the Rest is in many ways a deeply Huntingtonian book. Scruton takes his title from a map in The Clash of Civilizations, and his discussion is animated both by a profound sensitivity to the spiritual ambitions of the West and by a conviction that the effort “to transfer those values to places that have been deeply inoculated against them by culture and custom is to invite the very confrontation that we seek to avoid.” Scruton’s aim is not to expound a theory of international relations. It is rather to show how the West must rescue itself from its own excesses if it is to reassert its distinctive identity and preserve itself from the excesses of the Islamist onslaught.

If books, like whiskey, were rated according to strength, The West and the Rest would weigh in above 100 proof. It is a brief book, but concentrated. I do not mean that it is abstruse or hard to understand: on the contrary, Scruton writes with seductive clarity. But he has a lot going on in his 161 pages of text. He neatly summarizes huge tracts of Western political theory, Islamic theology, and the history of terrorism. The result is a book with two themes and one warning. The themes concern the relation between religion and politics, on the one hand, and the fortunes of Enlightenment thinking, on the other. The warning revolves around what we might call the perils of rootlessness, which turn out, in Scruton’s reading, to be less a function of poverty and deprivation (as is often claimed) than a natural coefficient of rampant affluence.

Scruton begins by describing the distinctive political history that has made the West a refuge for individual freedom, economic dynamism, and the pursuit of scientific understanding. It is a familiar story, beginning with the Greeks and the invention of democracy, proceeding through the Roman Empire and its ideals of law and citizenship, and refracted through Christianity, with its domestication of the transcendent, its union of an otherworldly vocation with the acknowledgment of legitimate temporal authority (“Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s …”).

It is one of the great virtues of The West and the Rest that it both affirms and complicates our conventional understanding of the issues at hand. It is often said, and rightly, that the West is the cradle of political freedom. When asked what we are fighting for in the war against terrorism, we say we are fighting to preserve freedom. This is true, but it is not wholly true, for, as Scruton points out, freedom unchecked is ultimately a self-consuming passion. Freedom animates civilization. But understood as the emancipation from restraint, freedom can also appear as the enemy of civilization, for civilization requires restraints. Hence the familiar paradox that freedom, if it is to flourish, requires definition, which means limitation and direction—unfreedom, if you will. This is not to deny the great, the inestimable value of freedom. It is simply to say that freedom cannot be rightly pursued in isolation from the ends that ennoble it. As Scruton puts it, “If all that Western civilization offers is freedom, then it is a civilization bent on its own destruction.” (“The effect of liberty to individuals,” Edmund Burke famously observed, “is that they may do what they please: We ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risque congratulations, which may be soon turned into complaints.”)

One of Scruton’s central themes, in this book as elsewhere, is what we might call the human requirements of freedom—those appurtenances of humanity without which freedom degenerates. One requirement is summed up in the word “religion.” As Scruton notes, “religion” seems to derive from the Latin word meaning “to bind.” Religion is not only a doctrine, a creed, it is also a practice that joins its adherents into a community. The gift of religion is the gift of membership, a word that figures prominently in Scruton’s discussion in this book. It is part of the genius of the West—part of what distinguishes the West from the rest—that it has, almost from the beginning, tempered the binding claims of religion by acknowledging the legitimacy of secular institutions. In this sense, Scruton observes, “The separation of church and state was from the beginning an accepted doctrine of the church. Indeed, this separation created the church, which emerged from the Dark Ages as a legal subject, with rights, privileges, and a domestic jurisdiction of its own.”

The contrast with Islam is striking. Following the atrocities of September 11, certain well-meaning persons attempted to console us with the assurance that “Islam” means “peace.” In fact, as Scruton reminds us, Islam means “submission,” specifically submission to the will of Allah. “The muslim,” consequently, “is the one who has surrendered, submitted, and so obtained security.” Of course, plenty of Muslims denounced the terrorist acts of al Qaeda. Still Scruton is right that “Islamism”—Islam embraced as an all-encompassing ideology—is “not an accidental product of the crisis that Islam is currently undergoing, and the fundamental tenets of the faith must be borne in mind by those who wish to understand the terrorist movements.” Wherever Islamists have gained power—Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan—the result is “not the reign of peace and prosperity promised by the Prophet, but murder and persecution on a scale matched in our time only by the Nazis and the Communists.”

In the West, the church took its place as a secular institution, subordinated, in temporal matters, to temporal authorities. Islam lacks that institutional elasticity. The ulama (“those with knowledge”) have their authority directly from God: no church or holy orders, no official compact with the state mediate their supposed revelation. Islam is in this sense a totalitarian ideology: it seeks to embrace and subordinate to its dictates the totality of life. “Like the Communist Party in its Leninist construction,” Scruton writes, “Islam aims to control the state without being a subject of the state.”

It is curious that security, like freedom, cannot be successfully pursued in isolation from other, complicating ends. Although the West developed out of a common religious tradition, it has long since subordinated religious belief to secular ends, placing its trust, as Scruton summarizes it, “not in religious certainties but in open discussion, trial and error, and the ubiquitousness of doubt.” The burden of freedom, the corrosive uncertainty of doubt, has issued in any number of intellectual and moral crises in the West. Nevertheless, the relative political stability of Western civilization, its prosperity, and the value that Western civilization has tended to place on the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake have all provided important compensations for those crises. Islam, by contrast, promises its adherents security. Yet 70 percent of the world’s refugees are Muslims fleeing from Muslim states. Where are they going? To the West, of course. The alarming irony, Scruton points out, is that “having arrived in the West, many of these Muslim refugees begin to conceive a hatred of the society by which they find themselves surrounded, and aspire to take revenge against it for some fault so heinous that they can conceive nothing less than final destruction as the fitting punishment.” A further and no less alarming irony: by providing welfare benefits without social membership for Muslim refugees, European states have conspired to create within their borders “a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists.”

In one sense, The West and the Rest is a homily in praise of politics. This might seem odd. After all, the problem of radical Islam might seem to be a problem of excessive politics: the politicization of, well, everything. In a sense this is true. But it is only because politics has developed an independent institutional life in the West that Western societies can be governed by the political process without surrendering to it. As Scruton puts it, “The difference between the West and the rest is that Western societies are governed by politics; the rest are ruled by power.”

Western civilization is composed of communities held together by a political process, and by the rights and duties of the citizen as defined by that process. Paradoxically, it is the existence of this political process that enables us to live without politics. Having consigned the business of government to defined offices, occupied successively by people who are the servants and not the masters of those who elected them, we can devote ourselves to what really matters—to the private interests, personal loves, and social customs in which we find our satisfaction. Politics, in other words, makes it possible to separate society from the state, so removing politics from our private lives. Where there is no political process, this separation does not occur. In the totalitarian state or the military dictatorship everything is political precisely because nothing is. Where there is no political process everything that happens is of interest to those in power, since it poses a potential threat to them. ... The political process is an achievement—one that might not have occurred and has not occurred in those parts of the world where Roman law and Christian doctrine have left no mark.

Scruton has two points to make about the political process. One concerns the essentially local roots that the political process depends upon for its animating spirit. The corollary point is that the ideals enshrined in that process cannot be successfully transplanted everywhere. The secular idea of citizenship that is the special achievement of the West coincides with “the emergence of a special kind of pre-political loyalty, which is that of the nation, conceived as a community of neighbors sharing language, customs, territory, and a common interest in defense.” The nation state, which, to some observers, has seemed to be an impediment to democracy, turns out to be something closer to its precondition. A recurrent theme of The West and the Rest is that Western civilization depends upon an idea of citizenship that is “not global at all, but rooted in territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty.” Islam, by contrast, is a global ideology in the sense that it regards secular authority by definition as without legitimacy. The sharia, the revealed will of God, is the only sanction for law. There is no space left over for politics, for dissent; all dissent is a form of heresy. Thus it is no surprise that a spokesman for al-Muhajiroun, a group of British Muslims with links to Osama bin Laden, publicly contended that no British Muslim has any obligation to British law when it conflicts with the law of Allah.

Since September 11, it has been tempting to locate the source of Islamic fanaticism in al Qaeda, the loose-knit group of radicals who have congregated around bin Laden. Scruton shows that the problem is both broader and older. Wahhabism, the radical sect named for an eighteenth-century zealot, is one important precursor. Another precursor, as Scruton shows, is the formation in Egypt in the late 1920s of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose announced goal was to rid Egypt of foreign powers. The Muslim Brotherhood established a pattern of violence and insurrection that has been followed and perfected. But perhaps the most important figure in this story is the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran. I quote as an epigraph from a speech in which Khomeini advises his followers to kill infidels. “To allow the infidels to stay alive,” Khomeini continues after the passage I quoted above,

means to let them do more corrupting. [To kill them] is a surgical operation commanded by Allah the Creator. ... Those who follow the rules of the Koran are aware that we have to apply the laws of qissas [retribution] and that we have to kill… . War is a blessing for the world and for every nation. It is Allah himself who commands men to wage war and to kill.

Scruton is right that the element of insanity in Khomeini’s expostulation should not blind us to the fact that it conveys a mood that inspires young men all over the Islamic world. He is also correct that Khomeini brought Islamism up to date: he showed that a radical, violent Islam was possible in the modern world; he showed that it was exportable to the West; and he made martyrdom a central feature of teaching.

Like Huntington, Scruton cautions against the effort to universalize the Western ideals of freedom and citizenship. Not only does that ideal “lack credibility” in most Islamic societies, but, even more troubling, the attempt to inculcate it breeds resentment, which breeds hatred, which ultimately breeds terrorism: precisely the evils that exporting “the West” was meant to cure. Perhaps. It is here, I believe, that Scruton’s analysis becomes like the curate’s egg: good in part. Globalization is the West’s primary economic and cultural ambassador; it is the motor of modernization. Is it therefore, as Scruton suggests, the unwitting ally of terrorism? He is right that Western nations need to reexamine their immigration policies and their pusillanimous commitment to so-called “multiculturalism” (really reflexive anti-Westernism). But to conclude that we need to repudiate our commitment to free trade and dispense with our “devotion to prosperity and habits of consumption” seems to me less a response than a capitulation to the forces that nourish terrorism. Western ideals of freedom and citizenship were born out of a particular social-political tradition. They are, as Scruton says, “an achievement.” But to deny that this achievement is sharable is to consign portions of humanity to the status of permanent barbarism. Which would mean that terrorism could never be defeated, only quarantined.

Notes
Go to the top of the document.

I.  The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, by Roger Scruton; ISI Books, 187 pages, $19.95. Go back to the text.

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