On September 15-20, 2002, Hillsdale College held a seminar on the topic, "How to Think About Islam." Nine guest speakers, both Islamic and non-Islamic, and several faculty members offered divergent views on several questions: Does the radical form of Islam behind the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, represent true Islam? or is it an aberration? Is Islamic doctrine compatible with religious pluralism and constitutional democracy? How are we to think of Islam in the context of the war against terrorism?
The following remarks are excerpted or adapted from presentations at this seminar.
To think about Islam, we find ourselves first of all engaged in the question of what Islam is. To be entitled to an independent view, one would need a mastery of the principal Islamic texts in their original language. Neither I, nor (to my knowledge) anyone else associated with this college, claims such authority. So how are we to try to think about Islam? Blocked from the deepest inquiry, we must think primarily as informed citizens, as most of us will never be Islamic scholars. As citizens, we must think politically. To think politically, we must think in terms of regimes. Regimes are the primary frame of reference for the political thinker.
What is a regime? That question, I can answer. A regime is the most authoritative form of ruling in a political community. To determine what regime rules in such a community, you need to know three things.
First, who rules there? What persons are in charge, and how many of them are there—one, few, or many? What kind of persons are they? What is their character?
Second, how do these persons rule? By what institutional structures? Do the rulers rule through parliaments and courts? Or through armies and secret police?
Finally, what way of life prevails in the country? What are the habits of the heart of the people who live there? For example, many of you were struck, as I was, by a film aired a few months ago on an Arab television network. In this film, a three-year-old girl was asked, “What are the Jews?” “The Jews,” she answered dutifully, “are apes and pigs.” It is fair to say that this catechism of contempt is not a habit of the heart publicly honored in commercial republican regimes—whether their peoples are Muslim as in Turkey, Jewish as in Israel, or predominantly Christian as in America.
Islamism, as distinct from Islam, is the blend of Muslim law and the principles of radical modernity, characterized by terrorism and culminating in theocratic tyranny. Islamists must target Americans and Jews—that is, the West generally—because the commercial republics represented by Americans and Jews hold up an understanding of the good for human beings that is antithetical to their own.
When George Washington wrote to the Newport Synagogue, in the letter quoted this week by Prime Minister Bhutto, he told those Jews that they enjoyed the free exercise of religion in America, not on the basis of mere toleration, but on the basis of natural right—the right to life in the fullest sense. In contrast, the Islam of the Islamists, and even the Islam of the shar’ia—the Islamic law—offers Jews and Christians toleration, not on the basis of the natural right to life, but on the basis of the right to kill. That is, in the status of dhimmitude, non-Muslims may live only on condition of strict subordination, enforceable by death. Exclusion from citizenship is the price of survival. A full life may only be lived if you believe rightly, and not because, as a human being, you are entitled to such a life, regardless of your religious beliefs.
This regime conflict has now become urgent because Tocqueville was right about the modern world. In 1836, he predicted that the decline of the old aristocracies, the mastery of nature by technology, and the rise of statism left two stark possibilities for modern man: the commercial republicanism seen in America or the despotism then seen in Russia. World history since that time has been a struggle between commercial republicanism and tyranny in its many forms.
In confronting the regimes of terror and tyranny, whether secular or religious, we sometimes hear the objection, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Empirically speaking, this is quite true. But let’s follow that line of thought to the end: It is equally empirically true that one man’s freedom is another man’s slavery. What Osama bin Laden calls freedom is tyranny to Milton Friedman, and vice-versa. By the same token, we’ve seen that one man’s man is another man’s ape or pig. While Dr. Friedman may be a man to us, to that Muslim three-year-old and her educators he is an animal, and deserves to be treated as an animal.
So the real question is, which are we? Will we acquiesce in being classified as apes or pigs? Will we acquiesce if others are? Will we accept the consequences of such classification, consequences we all see very plainly?
As Americans, we are now involved in a geopolitical struggle between regimes, one an empire of liberty, another a nascent empire of tyranny. Like all past tyrants—King George in 1776, the slaveholders of 1860, the militarists of 1914, the communists and fascists who emerged from the ashes of that Great War—our enemies expect us to be cowardly, decadent, foolish and bourgeois. I rather expect that, like those earlier Americans, we will disappoint them. Indeed, I expect that we will defeat them.