Editor’s note: The following remarks were delivered by David Kelley, founder of The Atlas Society, on May 14, 2005, at the March against Terror, sponsored by the Free Muslims Coalition. They are republished now in the face of the advances and threats posed by ISIS.
April/May 2005 -- I am not a Muslim. Nor am I a Christian, or a Jew. My philosophy of life, Objectivism , is a secular philosophy. But we are gathered here to protest the evil of terrorism in the name of values that transcend differences in religion and worldview.
The most virulent form of terrorism in the world today is perpetrated by Islamic extremists. And the first thing to say about them is that they represent sheer, unmitigated evil. To watch the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and the deaths of 3,000 people, including the horrifying deaths of those who jumped to escape the searing flames… to watch the brave people of Iraq being blown apart as they drive their children to school, as they wait in lines to enlist in the police force, as they try to build a democratic society… to know that the grotesque and obscene beheading of innocent victims is being filmed by the perpetrators and proudly aired on the Internet… to grieve with the parents of hundreds of schoolchildren who were taken hostage and killed in Beslan, Russia…. to witness these things is to see the face of evil. We are dealing with evil men and evil deeds, for which there can be no excuses, no justifications, no explaining away.
To witness these things is to see the face of evil.
The terrorists claim that violent jihad is the true path of Islam. I do not believe this for a minute. But I am not a Muslim. I have studied Islam and the history of Islamic civilization, but I am not a believer, I have not absorbed its traditions and practices, I do not know it from the inside. So it is not for me to say what is and is not part of Islam. Since 9/11, many people who knew nothing about Islam before have taken to citing passages from the Quran, either to prove that it does call for violent jihad or to prove instead that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. But you can't tell what a religion means by citing passages out of context. Christians, too, can cite passages in the Bible to support different ideas about their religion. Like Christianity, and Judaism, and the other world religions that have endured for centuries, Islam includes many different sects and interpretations. Within the broad outlines of Islamic doctrine, the pillars of the faith, the meaning of Islam is a function of what it actually means to those who believe it, practice it, and study it.
The meaning of Islam is for Muslims themselves to determine in their thoughts and actions. If they believe that violent jihad is not compatible with Islam, then they are the ones who have the power, and the responsibility, for making it so. They and they alone must define what the religion means in the world today. But only if they make their viewpoint known. Unfortunately, it is the Islamists who have so far had the loudest voice. That's why it's vitally important for Muslims themselves to speak out against the terrorists and reject their actions as evil—absolutely evil, no ifs, ands, or buts. Too many Islamic spokesmen have taken "Yes, but" attitudes: Yes, the violence is wrong but Palestinians are still oppressed… or Yes, but there is still discrimination against Arab-Americans… or Yes, whatever. Well, yes indeed, these issues deserve our attention. But they do not justify or excuse murder and destruction. The "Yes, but" statements serve only to praise the terrorists with faint damns.
I salute Kamal Nawash for the absolute, unqualified stand he has taken, and for his courage and commitment in speaking out. I salute the Free Muslims Against Terrorism for sponsoring this rally. I urge everyone to support them and make common cause with them.
There is more to that cause than taking a stand against the terrorists, important as that is. The war on jihadist terrorism is a battle of ideas, a battle against the ideology of Islamism from which the terrorists emerged.
Though Osama bin Laden and other terrorists constantly invoke the Islamic past, their ideology is actually a modern one. It has more in common with fundamentalist movements in other religions, and with secular totalitarian ideologies like Marxism, than with any historic school of Islamic thought. What all of these movements have in common is a hatred for the values of modern liberal society, values that we in America tend to take for granted because they are so much a part of our culture.
The Islamists, like the communist and fascist totalitarians, hate individualism. There is no room in their worldview for individual freedom of thought, or for the pursuit of individual happiness. Mawlana Mawdudi, founder of Jama`at-i Islami in India and Pakistan and one of the most important and influential theorists of Islamism, advocated a theocratic state in which, as he said, "no one can regard any field of his affairs as personal and private. Considered from this aspect the Islamic state bears a kind of resemblance to the Fascist and Communist states." The Islamists want a society of rigid orthodoxy and censorship, just as communists sought to enforce Marxist dogmas and punish deviants.
The Islamists, like fundamentalists of any religion, are afraid of reason, science, and free intellectual inquiry. Just as Protestant fundamentalism was a reaction to modern science—it was created in the early 20th century by people who opposed Darwin's theory of evolution—Islamists want to isolate themselves and their societies from the encroachment of modern ideas. Over a thousand years ago, the first great philosopher of Islam, Al-Kindi, urged people to seek truth from 'whatever source it has [emanated], even if it should emanate from races distant from us and nations different from us." That is not the attitude of the Islamists. As Ayatollah Khomeini said, "We are not afraid of economic sanctions or military intervention. What we are afraid of is Western universities." And so, in Iran after Khomeini's coup, universities were purged and many were closed, with non-Islamic faculty dismissed, jailed, or executed.
The Islamists, like many other fundamentalists and like all totalitarians, are opposed to secular political institutions: democracy, individual rights, the rule of law, freedom of religion and speech. They believe in a higher law which they alone are qualified to understand and which they have the right to enforce.
I salute the Free Muslims Coalition and urge everyone to support them.
They oppose economic freedom, trade, and progress. Bin Laden speaks of Westerners as "crusaders" and "colonialists." But on September 11, al-Qaeda did not target the Vatican, the capital of Western Christianity whose leaders launched the Crusades. They did not attack the British Foreign Office, which directed colonial policy in the Middle East after World War I. They attacked the World Trade Center, the proud symbol of engineering audacity and global commerce, where businesses from scores of countries (including many Muslim countries) worked in freedom and peace, creating wealth and investing in material progress. Their target, in short, was a temple of commerce. In the same way, the suicide bombers of Hamas usually attack Israeli pizza parlors, hotels, nightclubs, not synagogues.
Ultimately, Islamism is not a positive vision of a good society. Beyond the slogans of imposing sharia and the fantasy of restoring the caliphate, Islamists have no real political philosophy or program, and in the few places like Afghanistan where their ideas have been put into practice, the result has been chaos, poverty, and oppression. Islamism is essentially a negative movement, a movement of hostile opposition to the modern world. And, at the extreme, it descends into sheer nihilistic destruction and cult of death, the glorification of killing themselves as well as others, the reveling in gruesome bloody spectacle that is more decadent and degraded than the worst filth coming out of Hollywood.
Those are the ideas that spawned the terrorists: the hatred of individualism, of reason, of progress, of capitalism, of freedom and secular government. Those are the very sources of modern civilization, the sources of all the benefits that we enjoy in America, the benefits we would like to see enjoyed by people everywhere. This is not a conflict between Islam and the West. It is a conflict within the Islamic world, and within the West, between those who accept the values of modern civilization and the nihilists who reject them.
I appeal to all those, of any creed or philosophy, who stand for human life and happiness, for freedom, for progress and for its source—the free exercise of reason—to join in opposing those who want to control the mind, roll back progress, stifle freedom—and who are willing to kill and maim to do so.
David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.