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The first decade of the twenty-first century was defined by Islamists, who used planes as weapons against the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and who would have done the same to the Capitol or White House if not for the brave passengers who died in the process of stopping them. There is much being said about the lessons the past ten years have taught us—about war, about national security, about Middle East policy. But the most important, which is too often ignored, is that ideas have consequences.
And irrational ideas are the most destructive forces in the human world, killing more people over the centuries than hurricanes, earthquakes, and natural disasters. The hijackers actually believed and took seriously the religious poison in the name of which they slaughtered nearly 3,000 innocent people. Some on the political left and the libertarian right have attributed the 9/11 attacks and subsequent assaults in London, Spain, and elsewhere to blowback for supposed economic or geopolitical wrongs committed by the U.S. But the hijackers were middle class, educated, and living in the West, where they could believe or do pretty much as they wanted. Yes, there are legitimate questions concerning American Middle East policy. But policy complaints do not justify nihilistic violence.
Islamists defend their criminal practices by appealing to the Koran. But their most dangerous idea is that any idea should be accepted on faith. One must not question, think critically, or use reason. One must not ask, “Why should I accept this or any alleged religious ‘revelation?’ Does this stuff make any coherent sense? Am I honestly seeking the truth or rationalizing and evading in order to believe this stuff?” Such faith-based believing is the ultimate root of all immorality, including that manifest in the smoldering ruins at Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania.
As Atlas Society founder David Kelley has observed, the Islamist assault on America and the West is a manifestation of the struggle between the ideas of modernity and the pre-modern. This struggle occurred in past centuries in the West with the rise of the Enlightenment ideas “that reason, not revelation, is the instrument of knowledge and arbiter of truth … that the pursuit of happiness in this life, not suffering in preparation for the next, is the cardinal value … that the individual person is an end in himself with the capacity to direct his own life … that individuals have equal rights to freedom of thought, speech, and action.”
Islamic culture is still mired in a pre-modern mentality. The Arab Spring uprisings reveal a frustration with the economic failures and political repression in the Middle East, made more stark in comparison to the West.
If these uprisings are not to result simply in more such failures and repression, what that region’s culture sorely needs but lacks are strong advocates of Enlightenment values. Instead, Islamists—who target those who speak for modernity—offer a return to millennium-old primitivism, with Shar’ia law chaining the bodies and spirits of individuals to greater repression and superstition.
In the West, the outcome of this battle of ideas will affect more than how long the security lines are at airports and how much oil prices spike on the occasions of Middle East instability. Here’s why:
Some 90 percent of the population growth in Western Europe since 1990 has been the result of Islamic immigration. In France, 30 percent of children under 20 years old are Muslim. In 40 years the majority in France could be Muslim. In the Netherlands, about half of newborns are Muslim. In 15 to 20 years the majority in the Netherlands could be Muslim. In Germany, a government report from the Federal Statistics Office says that the Fatherland could be majority Muslim by 2050.
The problem here is not with immigrants as such. Part of the problem is that European nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment can still trump Enlightenment values. No matter how many generations removed from their home country, descendents of immigrants are sometimes never accepted as “true” Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, and so on. Add to this the fact that many Muslim immigrants to Europe in past decades have brought with them pre-modern notions and one can understand why they have not assimilated.
Thus we see no Enlightened Islam arising in Europe. But we did see actual celebrations by Muslims in Britain of the 9/11 mass murders, and thousands in the streets screaming for the deaths of Danish cartoonists who drew pictures of Mohammed. If such moral sentiments eventually inform the majority in Europe, then the continent that gave rise to the Enlightenment could sink again into a dark age.
In the decade since the 9/11 attacks, many in the West have blundered in the battle of ideas.
First, many on the political left were revealed to not be simply honest critics of aspects of society in America and Europe. Rather, they responded as knee-jerk haters of the West. Noam Chomsky, for example, doubted that the Taliban was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Well into the American response in Afghanistan, he declared that the war’s aim “was totally illegal. It was more, criminal.” Only a few on the left—Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, for example—have broken from that camp and have stood up for truly liberal values such as civil liberties, freedom of conscience, and the right of women to be treated not like children or chattel but as equal citizens before the law.
Second, many so-called liberals are paving the way for Islamist theocracy by silencing its critics. During the Danish cartoon controversy, many argued for the “right” of the most close-minded, bigoted, and murder-minded Muslims not to be offended—even though the cartoonists mainly meant to educate, not offend. In the Netherlands politician Geert Wilders was tried for voicing his opposition to Muslim immigration. Free speech is okay for those who want to destroy freedom but not for those who wish to defend it.
Third, many on the radical religious right also blamed America first. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell “pointed the finger” for the 9/11 attacks at gays, the ACLU, and those who favor legalized abortion. And Dinesh D’Souza stated that “The cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11 ... the cultural left and its allies … are the primary cause of the volcano of anger toward America that is erupting from the Islamic world.”
While many on the religious right have not gone to these absurd extremes, they want to oppose the tenets of Islamic religious faith with the tenets of their own faith rather than to oppose faith as such with reason and Enlightenment values.
The best defense for the West is to get its own house in order. We need to stand up more consistently for rationality and individual freedom. These are the truths that will liberate and heal the wounded cultures of the world, and that will help the West continue to lead the way to a better, more peaceful, more prosperous future.
“ Are the People of the Middle East Fit for Freedom? ” by Edward Hudgins
“ The Jihad Against Free Speech ” by Edward Hudgins
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.