Sunday, April 05, 2015

Carson on Islam

From D.A. Carson (Love in Hard Places, pp 121-129):

As for the "terrorist" bombing of Afghanistan (a staple of the Muslim press), just war theory makes two distinctions that must constantly be reiterated. It does not deny that innocent noncombatants may be killed in a war but forbids that they should ever be targeted—as was blatantly the case in the attack on the World Trade Center. Moreover, just war theory insists that actions in the cause of justice be taken by the highest governmental levels, not by self-appointed liberators (a point I shall explore further). In other words, most Western uses of "terrorist" and "terrorism" presuppose a certain kind of stealth warrior with either no connection or only loose connection between the alleged terrorists and any government.

By contrast, Muslim use of "terrorist" and "terrorism" is narrowly psychological: where terror has been induced, there we find terrorists and terrorism. By this standard, all acts of war without exception are acts of terrorism. Psychologically, that may be so, but it does not help us to think clearly about one of the distinctions on which just war theory insists: any war, to be just, must be the result of a decision taken by the highest level of government. By itself, of course, that does not make any action right, for then the Holocaust would have to be judged right, for no other reason than that it was put into effect by the decision of the highest level of government. But the Holocaust, however abominable, is not usefully labeled an act of terrorism or a series of acts of terrorism, for precisely the same reason.

As for this particular conflict, must we also remind people that before September 11 America was the largest supplier of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan—with not one penny of aid coming from a rich Muslim country like Saudi Arabia?

The third charge—that the United States has long embraced a foreign policy tilted so one-sidedly toward Israel and has been so insensitive to the world of Islam that it has brought this terror on itself—is no less badly conceived, even if we concur that America has not always got this matter right or that Israel has sometimes committed indefensible acts of violence. There are several reasons why the charge is badly conceived. The most violent Muslim opponents, such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and al-Qaeda, have gone on record saying that what they want is the obliteration of Israel. As long as America stands as guarantor of Israel, the most violent voices in the Muslim world will charge the United States with tilting toward Israel. In fact, one can make a case for the view that by forcing the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians to the peace table and forcing concessions from both sides, the United States has precipitated the bloodshed from the extremists who know all too well that their actions will likely stall and perhaps halt all negotiations.

Leaders cannot afford to get too far ahead of their people. Doubtless America could have squeezed Israel harder to stop building houses on the West Bank. But it is not altogether clear that if America had done this, and Israel had complied, terrorist attacks would have ceased. Moreover, although it is true that America has supported Israel, America has also supported Muslim regimes in Turkey, Pakistan, and Egypt—and, in its earlier form, the Taliban itself in Afghanistan. It is hard to believe that America is on an anti-Islam crusade when it has proved hospitable to its own five million or so Muslims.

Nor will it do to say that the chief problem is that America has propped up oppressive Muslim regimes and now is reaping the wrath of disgruntled Muslim citizens. That theory is nothing but the mythmaking of Western liberalism. For the current terrorists think that most Muslim regimes, including the most despotic of them, are themselves too liberal. Saudi Arabia is not trusted by them because the Saudis want American bases on their soil. The former Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was not brought down by proto-democrats but by Muslim fundamentalists. President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt was assassinated in 1981 by members of the Egyptian Islamic Rhad group.

In fact, the issues are much bigger and have to do with Islam itself. One of the most percipient commentators is Samuel P. Huntington.[31] In 1993 in an essay titled "The Clash of Civilizations?" published in Foreign Policy, Huntington argued that for all the talk of "globalization" there is very little common culture outside the confines of a small, highly educated elite. In fact, global media could actually serve to highlight differences and encourage opposing parties to make a play for the media spotlight. Huntington suggested that in the next century the fundamental sources of conflict would not be primarily ideological or economic but cultural. The principal sources of conflict, he argued, will be between nations and groups of nations that belong to different civilizations.

Huntington's article called forth a storm of protest. Unrepentant, he enlarged on his ideas in an important book published four years later.[32] This side of September 11, he seems almost prescient. The West, he argues, generates ideologies; the East generates religions. Communism, after all, was essentially a Western ideology. More importantly, on the scale of Western history, communism was a fleeting specter, a seventyyear event—nothing compared with the struggle between the West and Islam that has been going on for more than a millennium. "The dangerous clashes of the future are likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic [Chinese] assertiveness."[33] Conflict will arise from a clash of civilizations. It is typical of Western sentimentalism to hold that people from other civilizations, if they had the opportunity, would want the same things we want. In some ways this is a generous conceit—but it is simply untrue.

Of the thirty-eight countries in which most Muslims live, not one permits free and open religious conversion. No less importantly, when a nation is on the edge of the Muslim habitat, there are almost always problems with neighbors, problems of violence and oppression. One thinks, for example, of the slaughter of an estimated eight thousand Christians and the displacement of a further half million since January 1999 on the Maluku island chain in eastern Indonesia. The shootings and arson have been carried out by the extremist Indonesian Muslim group Islamic Jihad, supported by radicals from Afghanistan with ostensible connections with Osama bin Laden. One thinks of the systematic extirpation of Christian churches in northern Nigeria.

Confident assertions to the contrary, the word Islam does not mean "peace" but "submission." Under Islam's domain, Christians may convert freely to Islam but never the reverse. Christians rightly blame themselves for the Crusades and are blamed by Muslims; there is no concomitant Muslim self-blame and almost no Christian blaming of Muslims for earlier taking over parts of eastern and southern Europe by military force, not to mention Palestine itself, thus precipitating the Crusader attempt to take some of it back by force. True, during the First Crusade the slaughter in Jerusalem was abominable, ruthless genocide. It was also nicely matched by the Saracen violence at Antioch and Acre. Before the First Crusade began, Palestine had been the scene of savage conflict between the Turkish Seljuks (Sunni Muslim) and the Arab Fatimid dynasty (Shi'ite Muslim), with massacres committed by both sides. Still earlier, the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim (ruled 996-1021) persecuted both Jews and Christians with appalling violence.

None of this justifies the Crusader violence, not for one moment. But one does become weary of endless justification of current Muslim attitudes toward the West grounded in Crusader violence almost a millennium ago, when the fuller account of who did what to whom is conveniently forgotten.[34] Little thought has been given to the fact that the earliest Christian expansion (Christianity's first three centuries) was entirely through preaching and acts of self-denying service and not infrequently martyrdom. Islam's earliest expansion (Islam's first three centuries) was almost entirely through conquest.

Many Islamic scholars today, not least the intellectuals who interact with the Western tradition, insist that the Qur'an's references to jihad are properly understood metaphorically (e.g., Sura 9:5). That may or may not be the case; I leave it to Islamic scholars to give their judgments on such thorny issues of interpretation of the Qur'an. What cannot be denied, however, is that expansion by conquest and retention by totalitarian control have, with few exceptions, characterized Islam across the centuries.

Similar use of force has not been typical of Christian expansion; moreover, where Christianity has stooped to that indefensible level, later Christian tradition has been the first to distance itself from its past and repent of its sins. I have not yet encountered serious Muslim writings that repent of its military expansion into Europe during the eighth and ninth centuries or of its violence against contemporary Christians in Nigeria and the Southern Sudan. Why do some people find it easier to condemn the West for some serious evils committed almost a millennium ago, and frequently repented of, than to condemn similar evils committed by Islam three centuries earlier and still being committed on a wide scale, and never repented of? And who is protesting when the Saudis chop off the hand of a pickpocket?

Distinctions currently being offered between Islam, "which overflows with peace and tolerance," and Islamicism—alleged to be a violent, intolerant, fundamentalistic, and indefensible usurpation of true Islam—may be politically expedient but are at best a kind exaggeration. In reality, these distinctions have to fudge too much history to be accepted at face value and are at worst deceitful propaganda.[35]

Numerous commentators (and not just Huntington) are now pointing out rightly that what is at issue is a clash of civilizations. The things for which the West prides itself—including democracy, more or less vibrant economies, capitalism, technological innovation, freedom of speech and of the press, religious freedom, and much more—are the very things that much of Muslim civilization sees as barbaric, immoral, Goddefying, contemptible, and signs of inward weakness. Moreover, much of the Muslim world, with its controlled press, has learned to think of itself as victimized by the ostensibly Christian West. These are the brute realities that explain the video pictures of tens of thousands of people dancing in the street for joy at the sight of thousands being killed on September 11. It is why, in the wake of September 11, there are numerous Muslim blanket denunciations of terrorism in general (which then includes whatever the United States has done in Afghanistan), but very few Muslim leaders could sign the simple declaration proposed by the Universal Press Syndicate: "We, political leaders of the community of Islamic nations, reject such terrorism as was practiced on September 11, 2001. The men who took this action in the name of Allah were impostors who profaned the word of the prophet." As Buckley rightly comments, "No more would need to be said, but that Declaration of Islamic Doctrine on Modern Terrorism, with names and titles of world leaders, should appear everywhere—in parliaments, mosques, subway stations. And airports."[36]

One need not agree with all of this analysis[37] to perceive that the initial charge against the West in general and America in particular is simply too glib. Nor is this argument an attempt to paint the world in terms of "good guys" and "bad guys," with the bad guys always being the "other" guys—far from it (as we shall see!). Experience on the ground in many Muslim countries has thrown up countless Muslims who have expressed the most profound regret and sorrow at the violence of September 11. All I am arguing at this juncture is that, whatever America's sins and political miscalculations, the charges against her are not well conceived but are driven by a sad blend of a profound ignorance of history and unbending ideologies.

The conflict seems to be shaping up in part because globalization is seen as a threat. This side of the cold war, many Western commentators, themselves deeply secular in their outlook, have promised peace, prosperity, multiplying democracies, and more and more market economies precisely because this is what people around the world (we are told) really want. Doubtless some do, not least the partially secularized cultural elites of many countries. But countless millions utterly reject the American form of freedom of religion because it is perceived to elevate materialism and immorality over God, while most Muslims insist that the demands of Islam go beyond and often against the goals of mere nationalism, and certainly beyond and against the goals of any state that threatens Islam's insistence that there must never be a separation between government and confessional Islam. From this perspective, the movement of globalization is often seen by Muslims as another ploy to extend Western secularism, whose long-term effect will be to rob Islam of its vitality. Traditionally, Islam has at least limited tolerance for "people of the Book" (viz. Jews and Christians); they have none for secularism. And that is precisely what increasingly prevails in the West.[38]

In short, the charges against America, to the effect that it has supported Israel too strongly and therefore invited on itself the attack of September 11,[39] fail to penetrate very deeply.

But my argument with respect to these charges against the West is finally deeper. Even if all of them are in some measure true, they are largely irrelevant. Perhaps the easiest way to demonstrate the point, in the first instance, is by an historical analogy. Let us concede that one of the contributing factors in the rise of Hitler, and therefore of World War II and the Holocaust, was the Treaty of Versailles (1919). Let us also further imagine that if Britain and France had stepped in when Hitler took over the Rhineland, they would have stopped him before he became too powerful. Does that mean that the rise of Hitler was fundamentally the fault of the nations who became the Allies? Or, more to the point, does it mean that because the Allied nations were culpably responsible for these bad decisions that contributed to the rise of Hitler and all that followed, therefore those same Western nations had no justification for taking up arms against Hitler?

Most of us would surely disown such inferences. Hitler had to be stopped regardless of the influences that contributed to his rise. Even if maximum weight is assigned to each of those malign decisions, Hitler did not have to take the path he did. And even if we infer (after the fact!) that his path, once those and similar decisions had been taken, was inevitable (which is not the standard view),[40] it still would not mitigate the impregnable fact: he had to be stopped[41]—out of love for his victims as much as out of righteousness.

The relevance of this historical analogy should be clear. We may usefully think about things that America and other Western nations might have done differently in the Muslim world and assign various degrees of blame for this or that decision or action. But the fact remains that al-Qaeda has to be stopped. Terrorism with the potential for mass destruction depends on two things—the will and the means. Osama bin Laden has shown he has the will; we know he and his followers are working to find the means. Regardless, then, of the contributing causes to the rise of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden has to be stopped. It is a righteous thing to do; more, it is the loving thing—for if he is not stopped, the almost certain outcome sooner or later will be countless deaths.


[31] For an excellent summary of his developing views and seminal publications, see Robert D. Kaplan, "Looking the World in the Eye," The Atlantic Monthly 288/5 (Dec. 2001), 68-82.

[32] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997).

[33] Ibid., 183.

[34] Gene Edward Veith has rightly pointed out that Muslims are constantly fed on their carefully selected "history," reminding themselves of every Christian offense, real and imagined, fostering a sense of outraged injustice, feeding the fury of vendetta. By contrast, most Christians do not know enough about their own history to mount a response. See his "Memory Loss," in World for November 17, 2001, p. 14. Worse, some Western publications, equally ignorant of history, pick up on Muslim historical reconstructions and repeat them, feeding the Western propensity for self-blame without having a good grasp of the facts.

[35] Samuel P. Huntington, Clash, 258, has tabulated two further sets of figures that deserve pondering. "In the 1980s Muslim countries had military force ratios (that is, the number of military personnel per 1000 population) and military effort indices (force ratio adjusted for a country's wealth) significantly higher than those for other countries. Christian countries, in contrast, had force ratios and military effort indices significantly lower than those for other countries. The average force ratios and military effort ratios of Muslim countries were roughly twice those of Christian countries." Further, throughout most of the twentieth century, "While Muslim states resorted to violence in 53.5 percent of their crises, violence was used by the United Kingdom in only 11.5 percent, by the United States in 17.9 percent, and by the Soviet Union in 28.5 percent of the crises in which they were involved. Among the major powers only China's violence propensity exceeded that of the Muslim states: it employed violence in 76.9 percent of its crises. Muslim bellicosity and violence are late-twentieth-century facts which neither Muslims nor non-Muslims can deny."

[36] William F. Buckley, Jr., "On the Right," National Review 53/22 (19 Nov. 2001), 63.

[37] For instance, many of the penetrating essays of Fareed Zakaria adopt a rather different stance. See, for instance, his "Special Report" in Newsweek (15 Oct. 2001), 22ff. Zakaria minimizes the "clash of civilizations" theory—a little too glibly, in my view—and argues that the problem is localized in the forms of Islam found in the Middle East. He ties the animus in the Islamic world in the Middle East to specific developments in their own history during the last thirty years: totalitarian leaders, failed ideas, the suppression of freedom, and populist religious fanatics adept in demagoguery. Out of the resulting sense of humiliation and despair have bubbled the deepest resentments against those who seem to be in power. At very least, these are immediate and contributing factors. But there are deep worldview issues as to why modernity has failed in most Muslim nations, why Islam has not produced a heritage of democracy but has generated controlling regimes (it is no accident that the Muslim nation that is perhaps the most democratic, Turkey, is one of the most secularized). I am far from certain that the larger worldview issues can be entirely ignored while small-scale political developments are judged completely determinative.

[38] "The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power. The problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U. S. Department of Defense. It is the West, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to extend that culture throughout the world. These are the basic ingredients that fuel conflict between Islam and the West" (Samuel P. Huntington, Clash, 217-218).

[39] As one person put it to me, the destruction of the WTC should be seen as a side effect of Israeli destruction of Palestinian homes. Not for an instant should we overlook Israeli displacement of Palestinians. But this sort of analysis, conducted by both sides ("If only the Israelis would . . ." or "If only the Palestinians would . . ."), is not only profoundly reductionistic, but is habitually one-sided—whereas the reality is that the cycle of attack and counterattack in a confined space over decades produces a vendetta mentality that itself becomes part of the problem. Those who attempt to intervene are invariably accused by both sides of supporting the other side.

[40] See especially Ron Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1999).

[41] Some who are so quick to assign blame should reflect on possible alternative histories. Suppose, for example, that Britain and France had stopped Hitler when he rolled into the Rhineland. That would have been the courageous and (in retrospect!) far-sighted thing to do. But if they had tried to do so, it might have turned bloody before they succeeded. Then such was the mood at the time that they might have been blamed for the conflict. Suppose, nevertheless, that Hitler had been stopped, with the result that the Austrian Anschluss never took place, nor the rape of Czechoslovakia, nor the assault on Poland, nor the Blitzkrieg across France, and so forth. So we are spared World War II. On the other hand, Hitler might then have poured his energy and money into those scientists who were working on atomic weapons. Without the onset of war, it is far from clear that Roosevelt would have authorized the Manhattan Project. And Hitler would not (under this reconstruction) have lost so many of his scientists. But once he, and he alone, had atomic bombs, will anyone demur at the suggestion that he would have taken over the world? My point is not that France and Britain were right, after all, not to attempt to stop Hitler at the Ruhr, but that there are so many intangible and unpredictable elements to historical unfolding that it is somewhat naive to contrast the bad outcomes of the actual decisions with imagined good outcomes of theoretical alternatives, without recognizing that with a few more leaps of the imagination it is possible to conjure up bad outcomes for many decisions.

(The entire book is worth reading.)

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