For most in Western societies, the behavior of Muslim fundamentalists is often incomprehensible and, at the same time, terrifying, as illustrated by incidents which make news headlines.
The most recent is that of Gillian Gibbons, a British teacher at a school for children of the Sudanese elite and foreign diplomats. Gibbons was charged by the Sudanese government with inciting religious hatred after honoring a 7-year-old student’s innocent request to eponymously name a classroom teddy bear “Mohammed.” Gibbons was found guilty under Sharia or Islamic law of blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed. She was jailed and informed that she could be punished by 40 lashes and six months in prison. After a “fair” sentence of 15 days was announced by the ruling clerics, frenzied rioters brandished swords and knives across Khartoum, screaming for her death.
In Saudi Arabia, a woman gang raped by seven men was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in prison for being in a state of “khalwa” or in the presence of unrelated males. Under Sharia law, women can appear in public only with male relatives. The victim’s lawyer had his license to practice law confiscated after he deemed the rapists’ sentence lenient and the victim’s sentence unjust.
In 2005, a 14-year-old Iranian boy died after receiving 85 lashes for eating in public during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.
Such incidents provoke outrage, shock and bewilderment in the West, which perceives the innocence of these victims and the injustice of their punishments for violating outmoded codes of behavior. But Muslim societies perceive these same actions as unacceptable breaches of and major offenses to a rigidly enforced code of behavior and moral precepts.
This dichotomy between attitudes in Western and Muslim societies is explored in depth in Lee Harris’ recent book, The Suicide of Reason. In it, Harris contrasts the enlightened societies of the West and its “rational actor” with the fanatical societies and “tribal actor” that characterize much of the Muslim world. He examines the phenomenon of the “rule of law” Western culture that is guided by broadminded self-interest and tolerance. In contrast, he explores the “rule of the jungle,” his reference to that faction of Muslim culture that is based on a common narrative of superstition and prejudice with a shame-induced, group ethic that fosters a willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice, suicide.
Harris describes the inherent conflict between Western civilization and its emphasis on reason and individualism and Islamic societies that teach intolerance and nurture fanaticism. Western cultures, imbued with a belief in the inevitability of the drive for individual freedom, view as fanatic, those societies which fail to modernize and adopt changed values. Harris posits that the West is disadvantaged in this way because it reacts to the story of change implicit in the history of the Muslim faith and creation of Islamic nation states. However, tribal societies don’t necessarily embrace modernization and abandon their zealotry, upon which their social order is based. Their fanaticism, which includes glorification of martyrdom, thus becomes a weapon that defeats all Western attempts to deal with tribal societies, including negotiation, conventional warfare and punitive economic measures. So, while Islam seeks to destroy the West’s enlightened way of life with the fanaticism of jihad, the West sabotages itself by non-judgmentally viewing these actions as cultural variations or efforts to procure freedom from an imagined oppression. Harris further contends that the West’s reliance on reason in the face of fanaticism will destroy Western society.
In The Suicide of Reason, Harris explains the evolution of America’s enlightened culture as a natural development originating from the ideal circumstances of pioneer life. He describes how America was settled by stubborn, rugged individualists who fled to the New World to escape religious persecution and freely practice their religion. These early settlers were mostly Protestant dissenters who valued hard work, were determined to hew their own path and refused to take orders from anyone. While the Old World remained a hierarchal society of landowners and serfs with a strong military and government enforcing laws and maintaining the status quo, the North American continent was a wilderness unburdened by history and rife with opportunity. It was geographically separated from Europe and free of threats except for Indians. It couldn’t be conquered, only settled, and every pioneer was in charge of his own destiny. While the Old World admired the life of the idle rich and military strength and subjugation were the keys to wealth and power, in America, a settler with a Protestant ethic cleared his own land or paid someone else to do it. He held in contempt those who subjugated others to do their work. Hard work was honorable and the route to freedom, wealth and the good life. These unique characteristics of the New World – the right to keep the product of your labor, religious freedom and the lack of imposition on others – spawned American liberalism. Thus, America became fertile ground for the creation of a culture of enlightened reason.
In his provocative book, Harris contrasts this path of cultural evolution with an examination of the foundation of pre-modern societies, such as tribal or Islamic cultures ruled by “the law of the jungle.” Thus, hewing to tribal values, Islam is a totalitarian religious and political ideology that protects the ummah, or the Muslim world, from being undermined and preserves mandated tribal behaviors and beliefs. The fanaticism inherent in Islam produces a group allegiance that supersedes all other potential attachments. The tribal code and tribal cohesion takes precedence over anything else and a collective fanaticism fosters cultural protectionism. Harris maintains that it is impossible to appeal to a sense of reason in societies bound by fanaticism because enlightenment directly challenges and threatens their beliefs and very existence.
Another feature of tribal societies is the existence of religious authorities that control the populace and serve as their spokespeople. Fanatical intolerance demands that critics or apostates are shunned and condemned to death. There is no room for self-reflection. The only criticism permissible is that levied at “the other” or the non-believer. Ironically, the very qualities that are shunned and prohibited by cultures of reason are viewed as good and virtuous by fanatical cultures. In Islamic fundamentalist societies, the mullahs endeavor to fan the flames of fanaticism in order to make it more intense and powerful.
The principle of honor is of primary importance in radical Islamic cultures. The honor of the community must be protected at all costs and far exceeds any notion of the individual or of individual rights. Religious leaders, who view the world across a long-term time horizon, operate for the good of the ummah, the propagation of Islam over time and the enforcement of Islamic law.
Tribal success hinges on the inculcation of a uniform system of steadfast shared values and of a sense of shame so deep and visceral that it is impervious to reason and makes death preferable to tribal code violations and the accompanying loss of collective honor. It solidifies a rigidly imposed “us vs. them” mindset in which “the other” is a cursed object of abject enmity. The faithful are indoctrinated and prepared to sacrifice themselves for furthering fanatic tribal goals. Martyrs for the cause are celebrated and elevated to a position of honor.
Tribal cultures thrive on the vacuum that chaos presents. It is a boon to fanaticism and totalitarian control. In a state of chaos, all behaviors become permissible and extreme measures are easy to enforce on desperate populations.
Against such beliefs and behaviors, the enlightened societies of the West are ill equipped to do battle, Harris says. In Western societies, like America, elites serve as critics of the status quo and are often opposed by the populace. They keep any impulses toward fanaticism by the masses in check. Chaos is anathema to reason or order, which must be maintained at all costs. Indeed, the fear of anarchy often leads to appeasement and repudiation of beliefs.
Harris defines America today as a “carpe diem feel good” society in which the happiness of the individual is placed above responsibility to the community, world or future. Rights are cherished above duties, the present valued more than the future, and material acquisitions deemed more important than hard work.
Shaming is used as an effective tool in the enlightened West but with a different twist from that of the Islamic world. People are shamed into thinking the “right” thoughts and ostracized for intolerance and aggressive behavior. This serves to dilute cultural values and life-preserving warrior behavior necessary for survival. In America, people are generally unwilling to make the ultimate sacrifice and will do anything to avoid death and loss of property. The society operates under the notion that all differences can be resolved with negotiation rather than bloodshed. Potential warriors, such as alpha males are feminized, drugged and shamed out of existence. Essentially, mandatory multiculturalism enforces respect for other cultures and disrespect for American culture, Harris argues.
Harris further suggests that America’s Protestant tradition of independent thought and action has been replaced by programmed thought, further weakening our ability to deal with fundamentalist Islamic societies. America’s teachers are “salesmen of a particular ideological brand” and enforce a groupthink mentality of the “correct” opinions. For example, instead of critically evaluating multiple points of view about women in society, students are told that women are oppressed and that they must be purged of their anti-feminist views. Politically correct values and attitudes religiously demand tolerance for different points of view. It is deemed contemptible to view our American culture, our nation or any religion as superior and practically de rigueur to be tolerant of the intolerant and odious, such as Muslim fundamentalists and 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Thus, Western civilization is stripped of the notion that anything precious and worth protecting or fighting for exists.
In summary, the West is suffering from an insidious ideological assault from the outside by fundamentalist Islam that could result in profound societal damage, while at the same time we are, from the inside, undermining our core values and traditions. We are not experiencing a clash of civilizations, but an overt attempt to dismantle the worldwide status quo. The West is vulnerable, because it has failed to recognize that survival hinges on being intolerant to the intolerant and acknowledging the superiority of our way of life and the exceptionalism of America. We will probably be unable to change the Islamists and alter their three-pronged prescription for non-Muslims – death, subjugation or conversion – but we can prevent them from changing us. Through our “enlightened” democracy and lack of cultural protectionism, we are inadvertently aiding their cause. Our ability to fight has been severely weakened by the enlightened principles of tolerance and multiculturalism that we have grown to cherish and by a lack of group cohesiveness and respect for our common values and accomplishments. While we think short-term and teach our children to have contempt for our culture, the Islamists think long-term and teach their children to die for Islam.
According to Harris, our success in fighting the threat of radical Islam will depend on a willingness to defend ourselves against that most potent weapon for survival: fanaticism. Societies that are the most fanatical about their preservation will prevail. America’s best hope is that the struggle for our survival may cause us to awaken and recognize the nobility of our culture as something worth fighting for. We must return to our core traditions and values, take pride in our ethical superiority and exceptionalism and recognize a sacred duty to instill Western ethos in future generations and as widely throughout the world as possible.
Janet Levy is the founder of ESG Consulting, an organization that offers project management, fundraising, promotion, event organizing and planning services for conservative political causes and issues related to terrorism and national security.