What has defined the West is the convergence between Rome and Athens. Pope Benedict XVI related the phenomenon in his memorable 2006 Regensburg lecture. The “inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry” ultimately “created Europe and remains the foundation of what rightly can be called Europe.” It is what makes the West, the West.
The core of this convergence is reason. It is reason, of course, that makes possible human flourishing through the acquisition and development of knowledge. The admonition in commerce and governance that executives and officials must “think outside the box” has nearly achieved bromide status. But it is the most sound of principles. “The box” constitutes our premises, what the former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—with the humility one must have in the puzzling field of intelligence analysis—would presume to call the “known knowns.” Because knowledge itself constantly reminds us that our knowledge is apt to be imperfect, we frequently need to challenge our basic assumptions in order to solve the vexing problem or find the next Information Age innovation. That is why progress requires reason.
Progress requires reason.
It is one of those cruel ironies that one regularly encounters in political discourse, then, that our society’s forces of anti-reason are known as “progressives”—proving yet again the wisdom in George Orwell’s observation that “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” They are winning, which in the context of this conference is illustrated by left-wing censorship’s destruction of our universities. Free speech, the vehicle of reason, is increasingly overwhelmed by narrative, the most potent weapon in the social justice warrior’s arsenal. Today, anti-knowledge is power.
Pope Benedict’s brilliant dilation on faith and reason at Regensburg became most notable—some said “notorious”—for its fleeting reference to the centrality of jihad (holy war) to the Medinan phase of Islam’s development. The Medina transition is worth pondering.
In the earlier, Meccan phase, “when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat,” the pontiff recalled, he sought to call Arabs to the new faith through peaceful persuasion. This is reflected in benign scripture, such as the directive in sura 2:256: “There is no compulsion in religion.” Yet, after the hijra, the flight of the first Muslims to Medina under siege, the faith and its scriptures turned bellicose. Nearly seven centuries later, this prompted the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus (the key figure in the vignette described by the pope) to seethe: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
Benedict was at pains to point out that there is “a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable” in this sweeping denunciation. As Robert R. Reilly recounts in The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Current Islamist Crisis, the creed that relied on—and, indeed, to this day practices—jihad also featured a Hellenistic tradition that spawned Avicenna and Averroes. Nevertheless, Paleologus was getting at a fundamental truth: reason is God’s nature, while coercion, particularly through violence, is incompatible with God’s nature. Consequently, Benedict elaborated, to lead another to faith, one “needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly.”
Appeals to reason are all well and good, for even the mind of a captive is free to reason and make choices. But those choices can be confined. That does not happen in the West, or at least it did not until recent times, because here the rule of reason avails us of infinite choices. Reason, though, is very far from the most common guide for ruling societies.
Free speech is increasingly overwhelmed by narrative.
Without apology, Islam spread by military conquest because the predominant conception of Allah was defined by will, not reason. In fact, Reilly demonstrates, the internecine theological debates of the Ninth through Eleventh Centuries—a time in which sharia, Islamic law, was etched in stone—gradually and quite intentionally eradicated reason as a component of faith. In their radical voluntarism (the understanding of God as pure will), Islam’s most influential thinkers held that Allah is the primary cause of everything (there are no secondary causes), and thus rejected as blasphemous the notion that the divine is rational by nature—that there were rules of logic, discernible by man, to which Allah is bound to conform.
This tradition, which is the backbone of modern Islamic supremacism, did not so much refute as refine the Koran’s directive that “there is no compulsion in religion.” Even jihadists deny that they demand conversion by force. What they require, instead, is submission to the authority of the caliphate, the Islamic state (there being no division of political and spiritual life in this classical construction of Islam). This is consistent with Allah’s injunction (in sura 9:29):
Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the Religion Of Truth, from among the People of the Book, until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.
The jizya is a poll tax required to be paid by infidels for the privilege of living under the protection of the Islamic state. Historically, it was a not insignificant stream of revenue for Muslim rulers. Hence, the objective of the state was gradual conversion, not immediate forcible conversion.
The Islamist scheme for achieving such conversions is our focus. While people are not compelled to convert, it is mandatory to accept the sharia system of governance. This system is totalitarian in the sense that it aspires to control over all aspects of political, economic, and social life. And remorselessly so: Allah—pure will—has gifted mankind with sharia (Arabic for “the path”) as His prescription for how life is to be lived; thus, there can be no more profound offense than failure to comply.
Again, sharia does not require one’s affirmation of Islam, a grudging recognition of the reality that there is no real acceptance of a religious doctrine under coercion. Crucially, however, sharia tightly regulates both speech and the outward manifestations of adherence to other religions. Any form of expression that subjects Allah or the prophet to criticism, casts Muslims in a poor light, or sows discord in the ummah (the Islamic community) is considered blasphemous and brutally punished—incarceration, scourging, and even death, depending on the gravity of the offense (or the thin skin of the offended). Moreover, publicly practicing non-Muslim religious rites, displaying non-Muslim religious iconography, non-Muslim proselytizing, and even maintaining non-Muslim houses of worship as they inevitably fall into disrepair are forbidden.
The idea is to confine the captive’s choices. Although one is nominally “free” to believe what one chooses to believe, the world of available choices inexorably narrows along with the parameters of acceptable discourse. In the end, everyone comes around to the good sense of converting to Islam—no compulsion, of course, just “guidance.” And once one is in the fold, it is forever: apostasy from Islam is a capital offense, and if territory comes under Muslim control, even briefly, it is deemed Islam’s forever, triggering the obligation of “defensive” jihad if it is invaded or occupied.
All of this traces from the triumph of will over reason. Paradoxically, believers rationalize irrationality as righteous because it is commanded by Allah. They see themselves as operatives of the “Religion of Truth.” With truth being strictly the product of revelation, not logical inquiry, reason is viewed as a malevolent force: a man-made, Jesuitical pretext for diverting from Allah’s law.
The very pursuit of knowledge is thus portrayed as an act of aggression.
This totalitarian zeitgeist is not unique to Islamic fundamentalism. It is found throughout academia today. Still, it is enlightening—if dark—to explore it through the prism of modern Islamism, for it is the juncture where sharia supremacists unite with their fellow statists on the political left. The seminal figure in this partnership, and in the modern program of Middle East Studies, was Edward Said.
The study of Middle Eastern history and Islamic civilization is a venerable discipline. Today, it seems a vestige of a bygone time, when the designations “Orientalist” and “Islamist” referred to subject-matter expertise, not political activism or radicalism. Middle East Studies today, by contrast, is political dogma masquerading as academic discipline. Its core mission, with Professor Said at the helm, was to slander knowledge itself.
As Joshua Muravchik explained in an incisive profile, Said’s animating theory held that “knowledge” was the key that enabled the West to dominate Orientals: the point of pursuing knowledge about “the languages, culture, history, and sociology of societies of the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent,” Said elaborated, was to gain more control over the “subject races” by making “their management easy and profitable.” With real study caricatured as the engine of colonial exploitation, the way was paved for a competing construction of “study”—political agitation to empower the have-nots in the struggle against the haves.
The very pursuit of knowledge is portrayed as an act of aggression.
Said was a fitting pioneer for such a fraud. To begin with, he was a professor not of Middle East Studies but of comparative literature. Moreover, the personal history he touted to paper over his want of credentials was sheer fiction: far from what he purported to be (a Palestinian victim exiled by Jews from his Jerusalem home at age twelve), Said was actually a child of privilege, raised in Cairo and educated in top British and American schools. His Palestinian tie of note was membership in the plo’s governing council. Like Rashid Khalidi—his protégé, who was later awarded the chair in Modern Arab Studies that Columbia University named in Said’s honor—Said was a reliable apologist of Yassir Arafat, the indefatigable terrorist who infused Palestinian identity with a Soviet-backed Arab nationalism.
To thrive in an Islamic culture, it was not only useful but necessary for Palestinian militancy to accommodate the Islamist sense of divine injunction to wage jihad. From its roots, then, modern Middle East Studies is a political movement aligning leftism and sharia supremacism under the guise of an academic discipline. It is not an objective quest for learning guided by a rich corpus of history and culture; it is a project to impose its pieties as incontestable truth—and to discredit dispassionate analysis in order to achieve that end.
The embrace of Islamism usefully advances this project because, as we have seen, sharia supremacism stigmatizes reason and the pursuit of knowledge. It is thus innately antagonistic to the West that Pope Benedict limned as the convergence of religion and philosophical inquiry. For the Islamist, what the West calls “reason” or “the objective pursuit of knowledge” is merely a rationalization for supplanting Allah’s design with the corrupting preferences of Western civilization.
We see how this teaching plays out in practice. Muslim countries that supplement sharia with other legislation add the caveat that no man-made law may contradict Islamic principles. As we’ve seen with the “sharia democracy” constitutions drafted for Afghanistan and Iraq, the authoritarian Islamic law tenets effectively nullify the human-rights tropes. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation—a group of Islamic governments that form a large bloc in the United Nations—even found it necessary in 1990 to promulgate a Declaration of Human Rights in Islam because Islamists could not accept the Universal Declaration of Human Rights spearheaded by non-Muslim governments after World War II. The latter (however flawed it may be) is emblematic of rational, humanist progress; the former is the product of immovable revelation.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s most influential Islamist organization, has grown an impressive infrastructure in the United States and Western Europe since the middle of the last century. In laying the groundwork, it gave pride of place to an ostensibly academic enterprise, the International Institute of Islamic Thought. The iiit, a regular sponsor and supporter of Middle East Studies programs, is quite explicit in describing its mandate—on its website and in its literature—as “the Islamization of knowledge.” This, straightforwardly, means the weaving of historical events and cultural developments into Islamist narratives that confirm sharia-supremacist tenets.
Authoritarian Islamic law tenets effectively nullify human-rights tropes..
The word “narratives” is highlighted advisedly. When a culture is (or becomes) remote from reason, when it regards the pursuit of knowledge with suspicion, it inevitably prizes story-telling over fact. Facts, what we seek in the pursuit of knowledge, push us to think outside the box, to challenge our premises, to examine dogma rather than uncritically conforming to it. They are unwelcome in a totalitarian environment, where distinguishing “us” from “them” takes precedence over sorting out right from wrong.
It is the narrative, not the facts, that dictates what is right. And in this, the West increasingly mimics the iiit, with knowledge contorted in the service of leftist tenets.
In the United States, there has been a spate of anti-police riots and protests since August 9, 2014, when Michael Brown was killed in a confrontation with police in Ferguson, Missouri. The decedent is studiously depicted by the left-leaning mainstream media as an “unarmed African-American teenager,” which is true (if truth matters even a little) in only the sparsest sense. Mr. Brown was a giant eighteen-year-old who had just robbed a convenience store (bullying the manager) when he was confronted by Officer Darren Wilson, who realized that Brown matched the radio dispatcher’s description of the thief. Brown assaulted Wilson through the latter’s squad car, attempting to seize Wilson’s firearm, which fired during the struggle. Brown fled, but when he realized Wilson was pursuing, he turned and bull-rushed the officer, who shot and killed him.
There is no doubt that this is what happened. The facts were diligently pieced together through the testimony of numerous eyewitnesses, video recordings, and forensic examination. That, however, did not cause the racial grievance industry a moment’s hesitation. A legend was instantly peddled that Brown, looking forward to starting college, became alarmed upon a chance encounter with a menacing cop; he turned and tried to get away, but raised his arms in the air when told to stop, only to have the rogue officer shoot him in the back.
“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” has thus become the rally cry of a fraudulent but highly effective movement. The slogan festoons shirts and placards. It is acted out in public displays (including by five professional football players in a pregame demonstration before a sizable television audience). It is the foundation of a narrative that the nation’s police are preying on young black men, who are shot at and imprisoned at a rate wildly disproportionate to their percentage of the overall population.
It could not be more manifest that this narrative is an enormous, slanderous lie. In 2015, twice as many whites as blacks were killed in police interactions. As Heather Mac Donald notes, only four percent of black homicide victims are killed in police-involved incidents; the overwhelming majority die in black-on-black violence. Furthermore, the nation’s police departments have never been more integrated: many of the police involved in violent altercations with black men have themselves been black.
Nevertheless, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” remains the catalyst for continuing outbreaks of violence, especially in the aftermath of altercations between police and criminals. It is also driving national policy, in which a derivative fiction—viz., that the jails are teeming with non-violent drug felons—is driving Washington toward “criminal justice reform.” This bipartisan initiative aims to scale back Reagan-era narcotics-trafficking and sentencing laws, which—in conjunction with innovative, intelligence-based policing—contributed to a historic decrease in violent crime. That is, it would reverse what gave us domestic tranquility and propelled a renaissance in major American cities.
Again, none of the narrative is true. The federal prison population has plummeted significantly. (President Obama has made prodigious use of his pardon pen to commute felony sentences, and promises much more of the same before he leaves office in January.) Only rarely does the Justice Department prosecute mere possession of illegal drugs, and felons sentenced to significant jail time tend to be repeat recidivists affiliated with violent conspiracies.
Facts no longer have much currency.
No matter: the narrative must be served. Murder is up sharply in American cities (not yet near its historic highs a generation ago, but the trend is alarming). Drug abuse, particularly heroin consumption, is rampant, reaching crisis proportions in some places. But these are facts. Facts no longer have much currency.
It was in the Islamic academy that will and dogma snuffed out reason and knowledge. It is in the American academy that Islamic supremacists found a home—the first building block of the Muslim Brotherhood’s American network was the Muslim Students Association, which now sports hundreds of chapters throughout the United States and Canada. The academy was especially hospitable to Edward Said and the campaign to substitute political activism for scholarship, and thus to override knowledge with narrative. And it is the academy that has become ground-zero for the assault on reason, using the totalitarian’s playbook of strangling free speech and tolerating liberty only in the ever- narrower corridors between its “safe spaces.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 5 , on page 14
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