Taking the Measure of the West

Muhammad was a great man, at least as history traditionally defines greatness. Sure, there are revisionist academics who suggest that he was, more or less, a created figure who arose out of the politics and culture of northern Arabia, but we can, and perforce must as a practical matter, accept the received picture of him as affirmed by Islamic history. As such, he reformed, rechanneled, and revolutionized the ancient and primitive culture of Arabia to set it on course to become one of the world’s great civilizations.

In the first 300 years of its existence, Islam quickly gained an extensive and expansive empire. But it still had to sort out its identity, as all religions do. Would it, as Christianity had, become a merger of faith and reason, a melding of the heritages of Jerusalem and Athens? Or, like Judaism after the destruction of the temple, would it turn into a legalistic code, vouchsafed by coterie of learned specialists? After a period of rationalist dominance, when Islam flourished in intellectual and cultural pluralism, the legal specialists triumphed, having gained the favor of the caliph in the 10th century.

But unlike Judaism, which had to survive in a world where the religion had no political security, Islam still had its empire—even if it was an empire riven by a multiplicity of contending principalities. Though the legalists were able to continue to develop the shari’a and “codify” it into a number of written collections, the Islamic empire or empires were not theocracies. Rather, they were Caesaropapist, which is to say that the emperor, sultan, or caliph was dominant (or his bureaucracy was). He did advance the interests of the religion through the power that he wielded, but his own interests were primary. The legal experts, the ulama, sought always to influence and channel the leader’s decisions toward their agenda, but if parts of the shari’a got in the caliph’s or the sultan’s way, so much the worse for it.

That was particularly true for the longest running Islamic empire, the Ottoman, which picked up the pieces of the shattered empire torn apart by the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, and eventually held sway from North Africa to the borders of Persia to the outskirts of Vienna. Recent research into Ottoman legal practices reveals that the sultan more often coopted the ulama into his objectives rather than the other way around. When the sultan was strong, the religion helped to fuel a passion, discipline, and a cause among his troops and followers. When the sultan was weak, the religion did little to stanch the retreat.

Finally, after over six centuries, the Ottoman Empire, too, passed from the scene and Islam entered a new period in which its adherents jousted over what the very identity of the Muslim religion and the Muslim civilization would be. From the late 19th century, when the Ottoman empire was in its last decades of decline, until the early 21st century, different parts of the Islamic world experimented with liberalism, socialism, statism, Marxism, democracy, kingship, fascism, secularism, tribalism, fundamentalism, authoritarianism, and, in the case of Saudi Arabia, atavistic orthodoxy.

The author, journalist, and former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy has been a Cassandra-like prophet of Islamic supremacism, which he has said unites the various strands of modern Islamist thought and political action, however conflicted among themselves they may be. From the time he prosecuted the perpetrators of the first World Trade Center bombing in the 1990s, McCarthy has chronicled the growing Islamist threat and the feckless Western response to it.

Those of us who have studied Islam—and hoped for a better outcome—have been dismayed to see the triumph, in Arab lands and beyond, of the Salafist, or fundamentalist, movement over its competitors. The Salafists began in the late 19th century as a movement to return Islam to the practice of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors, at least as they interpreted it. Some of the Salafists wished to reimpose the medieval shari’a. Others thought the shari’a had become accreted with too many additions or even “innovations,” and wanted a more primitive—and more violent—form of Islam.

Although some modern Islamists, like President Erdogan of Turkey, wished to return to the Caesaropapist model, most of the Salafists sought a theocratic version of the Islamic state—one that it may be doubted ever really existed since the death of Muhammad. In that respect, the modern Islamists truly are revolutionary, though McCarthy seems to think, mistakenly I believe, that they are the heirs of the medieval Islamic empires. Nonetheless, however one characterizes radical Islam in historical terms, McCarthy is spot on to decry the clear and present threat it poses to Western civilization today.

In his extended essay entitled Islam and Free Speech, which is but a sliver of the man’s prodigious output, McCarthy homes in on the freedoms we enjoy under the First Amendment. The very practice of free discourse that is at the heart of the Western tradition is being undermined by Islamism—with the perverse cooperation of Western states.

A fresh example would be the dust-up surrounding Dr. Ben Carson when the presidential candidate said, in response to a reporter’s question, that if a candidate’s faith “is inconsistent with the values and principles of America, then of course it should matter. But if it fits within the realm of America and consistent with the Constitution, no problem.” When asked if Islam is consistent with the U.S. Constitution, he replied that it was not and added, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.” Andrew McCarthy took commentators to task for even making this a controversy—including his fellow conservative, Charles Krauthammer, who seemed to suggest it would be improper to scrutinize a Muslim’s connection with the more problematical elements of his religion before considering him for public office.

In Islam and Free Speech, McCarthy takes aim at the supine responses to the Benghazi massacre of 2012 and Charlie Hebdo atrocity in Paris in early 2015. It is the habit of many Western leaders to blame the speaker, who might have the temerity to criticize Islam, for setting off violent reactions. In the case of Benghazi, the American President actually concocted a speech-related explanation, an obscure and amateurish film, that allegedly caused the deaths of four Americans.

The slaughter of the staff of Charlie Hebdo did not come out of the blue. It was the culmination of a long campaign to silence the satirical magazine. A number of escalating events took place before the massacre occurred. The first tactic, in fact, was nonviolent: there was an attempt to have the magazine’s staff tried under France’s hate speech laws. Then the extremists bombed and destroyed the Charlie Hebdo offices. They hacked its website. The political leaders of the West then joined in as if in a flash mob as the President of France and the President of the United States singled out Charlie Hebdo for chastisement. Why does the West go out of its way to excuse and take the blame for the murderous actions of Islamist extremists?, McCarthy asks. His answer: “It is the result of a conquest ideology taking the measure of a civilization that no longer values its heritage, no longer regards itself as worthy of defense.”

McCarthy notes that Yusuf al-Qaradawi of Egypt, who is the spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most authoritative Sunni commentator in Islam, and host of the most popular television program throughout the Arab world, broadcasts that secularism and Islam are completely antithetical. Qaradawi  accuses those Muslims who embrace secularism of committing apostasy. Because Qaradawi opposes any democracy that is neutral to religion, it is little wonder that Islamists around the world have targeted freedom of speech as the enemy, for freedom of speech is the central institution that validates the democratic order.

This rejection of democratic values, says McCarthy, is what hardens resistance to assimilation in the West and has led to the Islamist program of establishing the informal sway of shari’a in local areas throughout France (751 of them, according to the French government) and other countries. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has declared that Muslims should not be assimilated. In his program of increasing his power by weakening the West, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey calls attempts at assimilation within Western countries “crimes against humanity.”

For much of the essay, which tries to elucidate the danger in applying shari’a principles within Western society, McCarthy relies upon strictures from The Reliance of the Traveler. This translation of a 14th century text of the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam is regarded by many modern Muslim legalists as authoritative. It condemns making pictures (which, if ever applied, would result in attacks on Western art). From there, McCarthy describes “constructive apostasy”—that is, actions, not just words, that would purportedly show that a Muslim has left the faith, as well as the rules against “blasphemy,” which are applied to non-Muslims. How could any self-respecting defender of democracy agree to constrict essential freedoms through the application of the shari’a?

The justification given, of course, is that we must be sensitive to Muslim feelings. To fail to give way would be “Islamophobic.”

McCarthy does concede that “Even free-speech enthusiasts are repulsed by obnoxious expression.” He understands that people should want to discourage invidious expression, such as flag-burning, and are rightly disgusted at Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ even as they are willing, on principle, to protect the right of the speaker. But he calls it “a short leap” from there “to the dangerous conclusion that an outright ban on sheer insults to Islam would be a harmless accommodation.”

Here I disagree. It is not a short leap—not even a short rhetorical leap—from disapproval of a protected practice to outright banning it. It is, rather, a total non sequitur. As the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, Gerard Biard, recently said in accepting a freedom of expression award from American PEN, “Being shocked is part of the democratic debate. Being shot is not.”

I do not believe (and I don’t think McCarthy does either) that we should not express disapproval of offensive speech lest it be taken as fuel for those who wish to ban such speech altogether. Such an idea gives up on the notion of a civil society in order to avoid an autocratic one. We lose what the Framers actually thought the value of freedom of the press was:

besides the advancement of truth, science, morality, and arts in general, in its diffusion of liberal sentiments on the administration of Government, its ready communication of thoughts between subjects, and its consequential promotion of union among them. [Letter from the First Continental Congress to the Inhabitants of Quebec, 1774.]

Freedom allows for a society to form, but it forms along lines of morally acceptable discourse, otherwise, there is no societas.

Charlie Hebdo is an example. McCarthy wryly describes the various jibes at Islam on its covers, sometimes crude, sometimes nuanced, sometimes ironic. One shows Muhammad deep kissing a gay man. But other covers not mentioned by McCarthy showed Jesus sodomizing God the Father; Pope Benedict holding a condom over his head, saying “This is my body”; a naked Muslim woman able to wear burka “on the inside,” as it extrudes from her rear; or a cover mocking the Malaysian Flight 370 crash showing the recovery of a pair of disembodied pilot’s hands grasping a pair of disembodied flight attendant’s breasts.

If these descriptions are discomfiting to the reader, then I think it would not be inappropriate to have distanced oneself from the manner in which Charlie Hebdo expressed its satire while utterly condemning the violence against it.

In an online essay (link no longer available) written in 2011, McCarthy wrote that other religions in past centuries had their hardliners but they were eventually bested by greater-souled persons, and we should not despair that this could never happen in Islam. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi in England, has recently developed that theme in a new book, Not In God’s Name: Confronting Religious Intolerance.) Yet since McCarthy penned those commodious sentiments a mere four years ago, the influence of the hardliners has only grown in worldwide Islam, while the West feeds the radicals’ ambitions by diplomatic and ideological appeasement. McCarthy’s writings since then have become more pessimistic, and not without reason. ISIS and Iran are murderous theocracies, Sunni versus shi’a, and they are the two most potent powers in the Levant. It is not surprising that Ben Carson and Andy McCarthy express the fear that “radical Islam” may be woven into the warp and woof of the religion itself, and that we are indeed in a clash of civilizations, with the prospects for the West looking none too good.

It is true that if we look at Islam through the political lens of international bodies like the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, or through the often radical-friendly Middle Eastern media, or through the cancer of Wahhabism, or through the beheadings by ISIS, or the apocalyptic vision of a nuclear Iran, or through the Arab street, then we indeed have a daunting enemy. But if we also see Islam in its conflicted historical sweep, and take into account the tradition that includes leaders like President al-Sisi of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan, and that includes the Kurds of northern Iraq and the hundreds of millions of people who either embrace Sufism or simply think of their religion as a code of righteous living, then there remains a real prospect of victory over the radicals.

New courageous leadership is needed, and quickly, to see what is the true threat and what is not—especially at this moment when the most evil elements of that civilization are expanding in power. Know thy enemy. But know also who is not necessarily one.