The Secularist Delusion

by Bruce S. Thornton

Advancing a Free Society

The dubious received wisdom rationalizing our current intervention in Libya was crystallized in Senator John Kerry’s recent essay for The Wall Street Journal. For Kerry, the rebels in Libya are the same as those in Egypt, “peacefully demanding freedom and dignity.” Long oppressed by tyrants and dictators, young people across the Middle East are “crying out for the opportunity to live a decent life, get a real job, and provide for a family.” This explosion of resistance across the Middle East, moreover, “could be the most important geostrategic shift since the fall of the Berlin Wall.” Much like George Bush — whose interventionist policies Kerry and his party spent eight years excoriating — Kerry’s vision reflects the faith that liberal democracy and free-market economies are the inevitable end of historical progress, for they fulfill humanity’s most important goods — personal freedom and material prosperity.

Apparently, many in Egypt didn’t get Kerry’s idealistic memo. He should have read the New York Times’ morning-after reassessment of its own giddy coverage of the protests in Egypt. Now the Times notices that “religion has emerged as a powerful political force,” that “the Muslim Brotherhood was expected to have an edge in the contest for influence,” and that those hip young folks with their tweets and Facebook pages, according to a secular Egyptian television producer, “have no control of the revolution anymore. It was evident in the last few weeks when you saw a lot of bearded people taking charge. The youth are gone.”

As for the US-trained and financed Egyptian army that ousted Mubarak and supposedly empowered the now-vanished secular youth, consider the following report from Raymond Ibrahim of the Middle East Forum: “On March 5, Muslims attacked, plundered, and set ablaze an ancient Coptic church in Sool, a village near Cairo, Egypt. Afterwards, throngs of Muslims gathered around the scorched building and pounded its walls down with sledgehammers — to cries of ‘Allahu Akbar.’ Adding insult to injury, the attackers played ‘soccer’ with the relic-remains of the church’s saints and martyrs and transformed the desecrated church into a mosque.” As for the Egyptian army, “not only did the Egyptian army allow the wanton destruction of the church to go unfettered, but it also opened fire on Christians protesting the burning of the church, killing nine and seriously wounding at least a hundred, some beaten with electric batons.”

Such illiberal behavior won’t surprise anyone who knows what the Times and Kerry alike apparently don’t — the totalizing influence of religion in the Muslim Middle East. “Most Muslim countries,” Bernard Lewis writes in The Crisis of Islam, “are still profoundly Muslim, in a way and in a sense that most Christian countries are no longer Christian . . . in no Christian country at the present time can religious leaders count on the degree of belief and participation that remains normal in Muslim lands . . . Christian clergy do not exercise or even claim the kind of public authority that is still normal and accepted in most Muslim countries.” And this influence and authority exist because for many millions of Muslims, religion still provides the dominant source of meaning, law, politics, and principles for their lives.

So too with those Libyan rebels Senator Kerry believes are fighting for “jobs, respect and democracy.” He should read the interview with Libyan rebel leader Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi, who fought against Americans in Afghanistan with the Islamist Libyan Fighting Group. Al-Hasidi admits to recruiting fighters who had fought in Iraq, and claims that “members of al Qaeda are also good Muslims and are fighting against the invader.” What sort of “democracy” does Kerry think such “good Muslims” will create once Gaddafi has been ousted with the help of our million-and-a-half-dollar Tomahawk cruise missiles? We don’t know, but events unfolding so far next-door in Egypt suggest it won’t be the New England townhall democracy of current fantasy.

This misunderstanding of the uprisings in the Middle East reflects the secularist and materialist biases of Western modernity. Hence Kerry’s misplaced emphasis on “jobs, respect and democracy,” when millions of Muslims are equally if not more concerned with obedience to Allah and reclaiming Islam’s lost prestige. No more useful are the by now clichéd false analogies with the collapse of the communist regimes in the old Warsaw Pact nations. Those Eastern European countries were the heirs of a liberal democratic and Christian civilization deformed by an atheist ideology that perforce would always be alien to the mass of people. Thus when the communist promises of equality and materialist prosperity went unfulfilled, those gangster regimes collapsed from the weight of their own failure and brutality. The Islamists, in contrast, appeal to a 14-centuries-long tradition of pure Muslim faith shared by the vast majority of Muslims, one warped and weakened by modern infidel ideologies whether liberal democratic, fascist, or communist. The freedom such believers want, then, is the freedom to craft a socio-political order consistent with the Islamic tradition that dominated Christian Europe for a thousand years.

Finally, discounting the power of Islamic faith in the motive of the protesters is consistent with the bipartisan misreading of jihad that attributes its attractive power to thwarted economic or democratic goals, and that faults the West for allying with despots who serve our own interests rather than promoting those alleged democratic aims of the Muslim masses. Thus Kerry asserts that failing to aid the Libyan protesters “would ignore our real national security interests and help extend the narrative of resentment toward the US and much of the West that is rooted in colonialism and furthered by our own invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.” Apart from once again blaming jihadism on alleged Western sins like “colonialism,” this assertion is incoherent. For haven’t those “invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan” expended our blood and treasure in order to free Muslims from brutal dictators and autocrats, and to create for Muslims the democratic self-rule and political freedom that Kerry claims is their highest aim? Then why would those “invasions” be seen as intolerable affronts to Muslims? Perhaps because freedom and democracy are not as important as the superiority of Islam and a Muslim amour propre predicated on the Koranic estimation of Muslims as the divinely sanctioned “best of nations” all others should follow?

The Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote, “If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.” Our delusions about Islam and the historical inevitability of our own socio-political order may add yet another example of Sun Tzu’s sagacity.

©2011 Bruce S. Thornton

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