America and Jihad-Where Do We Stand?
Assorted thoughts as we approach the summer
June 3, 2008
9:00 AM EST
This week's column results from the convergence of three elements: my reading recently of Magdi Allam's personal account of his conversion from Islam to Catholicism; a recent column in the Wall Street Journal by my friend, the ever prescient, Bret Stephens, entitled "Homeland Security Newspeak"; and my having just finished Robert Kagan's Of Paradise and Power. At the risk of rambling a bit, I want to share some portions of these readings, but only to culminate in the observation that they leave me in a state of pensiveness--not unlike the kind of pensiveness I shared in an article I wrote for National Review Online for the fifth anniversary of 9/11. At the time I wrote:
Five years after 9/11 and the launch of the "war on terror," this chasmal disparity of views and perspectives on war, on the nature of the threat posed by militant Islam, and what our proper response ought to be, raise some gut-wrenching questions.
First of all, what is our real situation at present? Are we - as Newt Gingrich would have us believe - on the verge of WW III, worldwide anti-American/anit-Israeali/anti-West Islamic Jihad? Or, as Niall Ferguson fantasizes, will further conflict be obviated and the "shock and awe" of the "war on terror" mollify itself into the quiet hum of hard drives as advanced intelligence techniques cum nanotechnology allow us to track and neutralize terrorists 24/7? Is Islamic terrorism an unstoppable Hydra monster, reappearing twice as strong wherever one of its heads has been lopped off, spreading its clutches over the entire globe and proliferating mass destruction? Or can this Hydra be pacified if - once and for all - we just get down to the business of addressing the injustices that give rise to terrorism?
That question--What is our real situation?--is the one that remains very troubling in my mind precisely because there remain so many different takes on what our real situation is at present.
So, let me start with Allam.
Magdi Christian Allam was baptized on Easter Sunday of this year by his holiness Pope Benedict XVI. He chose 'Christian' as his baptismal name for its simplicity among other things. Allam, for many years a high profile Muslim and deputy director of the Italian daily Corriere della Serra, professes to have been a "free spirit" in Islam and took pride in his efforts to bring "moderate" Islamic perspectives into the cultural mainstream.
His account of his conversion to Catholicism is deeply moving. It carries the emotive resonance of an Augustinian-style intellectual conversion. Describing what he calls "the most beautiful day" of his life, Allam observes:
The miracle of Christ's resurrection reverberated through my soul, liberating it from the darkness in which the preaching of hatred and intolerance in the face of the "different," uncritically condemned as "enemy," were privileged over love and respect of "neighbor," who is always, an in every case, "person"; thus, as my mind was freed from the obscurantism of an ideology that legitimates lies and deception, violent death that leads to murder and suicide, the blind submission to tyranny, I was able to adhere to the authentic religion of truth, of life and of freedom.
Allam, as the reader quickly notes, pulls no punches in his wholesale rejection of Islam. He continues:
I have been criminalized and there have not lacked those who compare me to the very Islamic extremists who have condemned me to death, simply because I have expressed a radically negative judgment of Islam. A throng of 'chrisitian-communist-Islamicists', adorers of ethical, cultural and religious relativism (not to mention political correctness) would have preferred that I limit my denunciation to that of Islamic terrorism, while maintaining an overall positive assessment of Islam. After all, as they see it, all religions can be susceptible from time to time of failing to be consistent with creedal contents, and, at any rate, one should never say things than can hurt another's susceptibility. But excuse me, gentlemen: if I have converted to Catholicism, this is obviously because I've developed a negative assessment of Islam. If I really believed that Islam was a true and good religion, why would I have abandoned it?
All of this comes from a man who affirms that "on my first Easter as a Christian I not only discovered Jesus, I discovered for the first time the face of the true and only God, who is the God of faith and reason," a man who in large parts credits Pope Benedict XVI for the discovery particularly of the harmony between faith and reason which Christianity presupposes.
Then there's Bret Stephens' column from last Tuesday's WSJ. His point of departure was the newly published recommendations on "Terminology to Define Terrorists," a nine-page, "Official Use Only" memo issued by Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. Stephens notes that the memo supposedly represents the suggestions of a "wide variety" of unnamed American Muslim leaders. Though not a statement of official policy, it gives us the unsettling notion that the rhetoric of "the global war on terror" may be morphing into an innocuous (and supremely ineffectual) blather. According to Stephens, in the minds of many at the State Department, terms such as 'Islamic' and 'Jihad' are to be extricated from official parlance, as is the--apparently explosive term--'liberty.' Writes Stephens:
In its most eye-catching recommendation...the DHS authors explain their preference for the word 'progress' over 'liberty.' "The struggle is for 'progress,' over which no nation has a monopoly," reads the memo. "The experts we consulted debated the word 'liberty,' but rejected it because many around the world would discount the term as a buzzword for American hegemony. But all people want to support 'progress,' ... And progress is precisely what the terrorists oppose through their violent tactics and through their efforts to impose a totalitarian world view."
It seems to have escaped the authors' notice that the most formidable totalitarian movement of the 20th century - communism - was, by its own lights, "progressive." It seems to have escaped their notice that the essence of a totalitarian system is the denial of liberty (often in the name of progress). It seems to have escaped their notice that "progress" is a word that signifies nothing. Exactly what is one progressing to?
"Perhaps with further moral and intellectual refinement," muses Stephens, "we can someday embark on a 'General Effort Against Negativity and Ungoodness.' One wonders if, on the rhetorical level, such will not be the final product after the same political correctness decried by Allam corrodes the very meaning of what was once called a "war on terror."
Kagan's Of Paradise and Power (first published in 2003, and with a new Afterword in 2004) is an enormously insightful essay on what ails European-American relations these days. On the very meaning of such things as a 'war on terror', the threat posed at one time by Saddam Hussein, the dangers posed by militant Islam, Americans and Europeans have generally tended to, shall we say, disagree.
Kagan's essay tracks the historical events and conceptual changes that have caused the strained relations between these two political entities whose well being, fortunes and futures were once intimately moored together in what, as Kagan would put it, used to be called "the West."
In a final section of the essay entitled "Adjusting to Hegemony," Kagan explores the multiple implications of America's remaining in the world as a sole superpower after the fall of Communism. Europe, he observes, has become something of a modern miracle. Having overcome its own centuries-old demons of internal belligerence (having definitively resolved "the German question"), today a united Europe has exorcised those demons and emerged as a modern paradise, largely united around an ideology that adamantly rejects the notion of power politics. "The problem," observes Kagan, "is that the United States must sometimes play by the rules of a Hobbesian world, even though in doing so it violates Europe's postmodern norms...It must live by a double standard. And it must sometimes act unilaterally, not out of a passion for unilateralism but only because, given a weak Europe that has moved beyond power, the United States has no choice but to act unilaterally."
All of which, again, leaves me pensive. Islam--dare I repeat it?--in the opinion of Magdi Allam, is intrinsically flawed; Catholicism, in his opinion, the domain of faith and reason, a sphere in which respect for the most basic human values (respect for the person, human rights, religious freedom) can flourish. Both on the Continent, and within an ever more highly politicized and ideologically charged America, the competing perceptions of our world and America's situation in that world are sharply and radically divergent.
Much to think and pray about. Now, more than ever--especially as we approach the November elections--we need answers: Just how dangerous is our world? How do we determine that? What do we do about it?
Rev. Thomas V. Berg, L.C. is Executive Director of the
 My own translation from the Italian. An abbreviated form of this account appeared as a letter to Paolo Mieli, the director of the Corriere della Sera. The Italian version of Magdi's complete account of his conversion can be found at www.magdiallam.it. Allam wrote this in the form of a letter to Mieli. An English translation of Magdi's conversion story can be found here although the Italian version of what was later actually published in the Corriere as a letter to Mieli contains interesting content not found-as far as I can tell-in the letter published on Magdi's website, including the paragraph just cited.