Last month, The New Criterion and the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies hosted a conference in New York on “Free Speech in an Age of Jihad.” Many who have commented on the event characterized it as a conference about “libel tourism,” the practice of jihadists to use and abuse libel laws to muzzle criticism. But as several participants in the conference made clear, libel tourism is but one weapon in the multifarious armory of militant Islam. The unhappy truth is that the threat to civilization in the West comes not only from our enemies but also from within. This was a theme that Mark Steyn developed with his characteristic blend of humor and admonitory insight in his luncheon talk, “The Dimming of Liberty: Legal Jihad and the Criminalization of Resistance.” Steyn’s talk ranged widely, but its central message, he noted, was summed up by the historian Arnold Toynbee. Most civilizations, Toynbee wrote, die from suicide, not murder. We in the West preen ourselves on our high standard of living, our freedoms, our pleasures. But what beliefs, what backbone, undergird those material triumphs? Radical Islam is a fanatical, often a murderous, faith. The welfare-state liberalism of the West is less a faith than a perpetual grievance.

In The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek, hearkening back to Tocqueville’s analysis of “democratic despotism,” noted that “the most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change, an alteration in the character of a people.” The nature of that change was partly an enervation, partly an effeminization. The Islamofascists have a fanatical belief that theirs is a holy mission, that incinerating infidels is their bounden duty. For them, suicide is a gateway to paradise. For us, suicide is just that: suicide. The question is whether we believe anything with sufficient vigor to jettison the torpor of our barren self-satisfaction. One part of the purpose of “Free Speech in an Age of Jihad” was to describe the threat that radical Islam, in its more bureaucratic and legalistic avatars, poses to the West. Equally important was the effort to remind us that the threat to Western civilization lies as much with our response—or, rather, our lack of response. Western democratic society is rooted in a particular vision of what Aristotle called “the good for man.” The question is: Do we, as a society, still have confidence in the animating values of that vision? Do we possess the requisite will to defend them? Or was the French philosopher Jean-François Revel right when he said that “Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because another power is trying to destroy it”? The jury is still out on those questions. How we answer them will determine the fate not just of Western journalism but of Western civilization itself.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 9, on page 3
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