Sword Without Leniency

The West must scuttle arrogant materialism and take jihadists at their word

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

In 636 A.D., the caliph Umar gave these instructions to the commander he sent to Basra during the conquest of Iraq: “Summon the people to God; those who respond to your call, accept if from them, but those who refuse must pay the poll tax out of humiliation and lowliness. If they refuse this, it is the sword without leniency.”

Nearly fourteen centuries later, another Muslim leader, President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — who like Umar is fulfilling the Prophet’s injunction to “fight those who believe not in Allah” — has issued a similar summons to President Bush, leader of the most powerful nation in what once was called Christendom: “Undoubtedly through faith in God and the teaching of the prophets, the people will conquer their problems. My question to you is: ‘Do you want to join them?’”

As for the “sword” awaiting those who refuse the call, Iran has been forging it for decades by supporting terrorist jihadists like Hezbollah and Hamas, and by relentlessly pursuing nuclear weapons. And of course, those who have already made their de facto “submission,” that is most of Europe, daily demonstrate their “humiliation and lowliness” by appeasing the jihadists in their midst, by paying a “poll tax” disguised as “humanitarian aid” and “social welfare” transfers, and by anxious protestations of their own culture’s sins and the superior glories of Islam.

Once again, we see the continuity and coherence of Islamic jihadist tradition across fourteen centuries. Yet here in the West, we refuse to listen to what the jihadists tell us and take them seriously in their own terms. We dismiss this continuity as an illusion masking the “real” causes, which must be material and psychological. No, no, we are told, the pursuit of jihad is not the fulfillment of a spiritual command, the expression of belief sanctified by Allah. Rather, it is the distorted rationalization for political dysfunction, lack of jobs and economic opportunity, distress over the absence of a Palestinian homeland, anger over the occupation of Iraq, self-esteem wounded by intrusive globalization, or lingering resentments of Western colonialism and imperialism.

By refusing to take the jihadist at their word, we Westerners are indulging our own superstitions and received wisdom. We have accepted the unscientific assertion that all reality is material, and so we dismiss the spiritual as a superstitious fantasy, a hold-over from less enlightened times necessary for those benighted folks still mired in exploded beliefs and incapable of accepting the hard reality of God’s death. Afraid of facing the truth of their own repressions and neuroses, believers cling to these fantasies as bulwarks against all the changes they fear, especially the liberating progress and utopian boons that are mankind’s destiny once these old illusions are discarded.

This view of religious faith is on display everywhere in our culture, from television and movies and “high” art to the ruminations of “progressive” intellectuals and media pundits. The great irony is that this interpretation of religious faith is itself not a scientific truth but mere prejudice at best, bigotry at worst. And it is a stale cliché, the remnant of old Western ideas long discredited. With every expression of this received wisdom, we hear the ghost of Marx telling us that religion is “the opiate of the people,” the “illusory sun” we must discard, the instrument of oppression invented by the oppressor to keep his victims in check. We hear Nietzsche’s cry of liberating joy at God’s death: “We philosophers and ‘’free spirits’ feel, when we hear the news that ‘the old god is dead,’ as if a new dawn shone for us . . . . At long last the horizon appears free to us again.” And we hear another antitheist (because like the other two, he doesn’t so much disbelieve in God as dislike and resent Him), Freud, telling us that “religious ideas” are “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind.”

Armed with these old materialist prejudices, we then treat the Muslim as one sick or confused, a victim of Western crimes, a neurotic who resorts to misunderstandings and distortions of his own faith in order to cope with events whose causes he doesn’t understand. Or, as the press has done with Ahmadinejad’s letter, we explain away his belief as a Machiavellian political tactic. Either way, in the guise of rationalizing jihadist violence we display a curious Western arrogance that sweeps away the most cherished beliefs, that asserts we Westerners better understand Islam than do millions of its adherents, and that reduces Muslims to the status of children and dupes, the passive prey to material and psychological forces they can’t comprehend. How superior we are, we Westerners who see the true reality disguised from others by superstition and tradition!

Even though some in the Islamic world, when dealing with Westerners, will tactically repeat such ideas, the true believer sees in them nothing more than ignorant insults reflecting our own materialist prejudices, and signs of our spiritual bankruptcy. He sees our spiritual sickness manifested not just in our philosophical and economic materialism, but in our self-loathing, our groveling guilt over presumed imperialist and colonialist sins, our flabby tolerance, and our multicultural idealizations of dysfunctional cultures. And this confession of our loss of spiritual certainty convinces the jihadist that he is right to pursue a war against such infidels, whom Allah wishes to convert to the true faith in order to cure them of the cultural pathologies that result from materialism and secularization.

In short, the jihadist sees a culture of seeming power and magnificence, but one whose foundations are rotten, needing only some well-placed kicks to send the whole edifice tumbling — just like the grand civilization of the Byzantines that the first jihadists invaded and devoured fourteen centuries earlier. Unlike in the seventh century, however, today the weapons of the jihadist are not swords and scimitars. They are demography, propaganda, disinformation, and WMDs in the hands of terrorists. But their most potent weapon is our own failure of nerve, what George Weigel has called in The Cube and the Cathedral a “crisis of civilizational morale” that will ensure the West ends not with a bang but with a whimper:

Were something similar [to the eighth-century destruction of Christian North Africa by Islam] to happen in Europe in the late twenty-first or early twenty-second century, it might not be — indeed it likely would not be — because an Islamist army marched into western Europe and conquered it. It wouldn’t have to. Europe — in the sense of the civilizational enterprise we identify with the interaction of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, a civilization whose modern democratic public life was prepared in the Christian high culture of the Middle Ages — would have handed itself over to its new populations. In significant parts of Europe, the drama of atheistic humanism would have played itself out in the triumph of a thoroughly nonhumanistic theism. The crisis of civilizational morale that Europe is experiencing today would have reached its bitter end in a Europe in which the muezzin summons the faithful to prayer from the central loggia of St. Peter’s in Rome, while Notre-Dame has been transformed into Hagia Sophia on the Seine — a great Christian church become an Islamic museum.

Whether or not Weigel’s analysis applies to America remains to be seen. But the choice is clear: the path of the subjected dhimmi who with their humiliation and protection money buy a little transitory security for their hedonistic lifestyle, or the path of those great Christian warriors of old — Don John, Charles Martel, Charlemagne, Sobieski — who fought against an imperialist jihad and in the process created the conditions that allowed Europe, and perforce America, to exist in the first place.

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