"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Freedom Or Virtue–The West vs. Islam

There has always been a tension between those who believe that individual freedom is the ultimate and absolute bedrock principle of modern society; and those who believe that values trump freedom.  Christopher Shannon writing in Front Porch Republic (3.12.12) considers this tension and describes it here:
Libertarians understand conservatism as fundamentally a philosophy of individual freedom, particularly freedom from government constraint in matters economic.  Traditionalists understand conservatism as primarily a defense of the values that have historically shaped Western civilization; traditionalists embrace some conception of liberty as one of those values, yet tend to subordinate negative liberty (freedom from constraint) to more positive, substantive values that they generally referred to as virtues.  So, to take a hot-button “social issue” like abortion: the libertarian is content that government does not impose abortion on individuals, while a traditionalist would insist on prohibiting abortion in order to foster what George W. Bush, echoing Pope John Paul II, called a “culture of life.”
Looking at the revolutionary changes in the Middle East through this freedom-virtues lens can be helpful in deciphering current events. The goal of Islamists, political operatives distinct from Muslims as a whole, is to establish Islamic Republics and to institute Sharia law.  Islamists may stand for election and often – as in the case of Hamas in Gaza – are elected.  However, having used a democratic institution to accede to power, they are quick to turn away from most other democratic principles. 

The imposition of Sharia law with its consequent versions of summary justice, deprivation of women’s rights, strictures on free speech, etc., is anti-democratic.  The justification given for this dismissal of civil rights is that Islamic values will always trump individual freedom.  The election of Islamists in a free and fair process gives them the mandate to apply and execute what amounts to God’s law.

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American Conservatism has tried for decades to square the opposing views.  Early Conservatives like William F. Buckley, a believer in both liberal economics and traditional values, resolved the apparent contradiction between unbridled individual enterprise and the importance of Christian values by citing the religious foundation for capitalism.  The Puritanical Protestantism early Americans inherited from Europe quickly evolved from the harsh and immutable doctrine of predestination to one that admitted the role of the individual in attaining salvation.  Economic success was one indicator of being saved:
American Puritans linked material wealth with God’s favor. They believed that hard work was the way to please God. Created more wealth through one’s work and thrift could guarantee the God’s elect. The doctrine of predestination kept all Puritans constantly working to do good in this life in order to be chosen for the next eternal life. God had already chosen who would be in heaven or hell, but Christians had no way of knowing which group they were in. Those who were wealthy would obviously be blessed by God and in good standing with Him. The work ethic of Puritans was the
belief that hard work was an honor to God which would lead to a prosperous reward. Any deviations from the normal way of Puritan life would be strictly denied and disapproved. (Ning Kang, Journal of European Studies, American Puritanism, 10.09)
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So for Buckley and later Conservatives, freedom and values could coexist with no contradiction or paradox.  Yet the accommodation was never complete.  Conservative still had some problems with the uneasy association of individualism and traditional values.  Two of the luminaries of the original movement – Brent Bozell and Frank Meyer, the former tending towards favoring traditional virtues, the latter toward individualism – argued for years.
Bozell’s 1962 essay, “Freedom or Virtue?,” remains the most powerful traditionalist response to Meyer’s fusionism.  In essence, the question Bozell poses in his title demands a choice not of values, but of priorities.  For Meyer and his fellow libertarians, freedom comes first and our actions are “virtuous” only to the degree in which we freely choose them.  Speaking for traditionalists, Bozell concedes that freedom is essential to virtue, but insists it is not the primary or ultimate value.  Freedom has value or meaning only in terms of the objects or ends that it serves. No minor debating point, the question of priority has profound implications for one’s vision of a just and free society.
The Islamist world is very Bozellian – freedom is fine and democratic elections are good – but only if they help the ultimate cause of Islam and Sharia.  As Bozell said, it is a matter of priority.
Political groups like Hamas have given the US concern for many reasons.  Not only has Hamas been branded a terrorist organization which has as one of its principal tenets the annihilation of Israel, but it was freely and fairly elected.  The United States carried out its own brand of prioritization and refused to recognize Hamas.

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The fact remains that Islamist parties will continue their ascendancy to political power, and whether or not the United States and the West likes it or not, they will be a fact of life in the Middle East.  Rather than bang on about democracy, elections, and a Western version of civil rights, the United States needs to develop a diplomatic strategy which acknowledges the fundamentally different principles underlying Islamist states without compromising its own.  Not an easy task.  After all, Americans believe that our rights have been ‘God-given’.

There are some scholars who believe that Islam itself, not borne of the classical Greek democratic tradition upon which Christianity was based, is at heart not democratic at all.  One need only read Aquinas and Augustine to understand how the Catholic Church in its earliest days considered both free will and the importance of the individual and the role of the individual within the state/church. Not so in Islam:
Ironically, while Western scholars perform intellectual somersaults to demonstrate the compatibility of Islam and democracy, prominent Muslim scholars argue democracy to be incompatible with their religion. They base their conclusion on two foundations: first, the conviction that Islamic law regulates the believer's activities in every area of life, and second, that the Muslim society of believers will attain all its goals only if the believers walk in the path of God. In addition, some Muslim scholars further reject anything that does not have its origins in the Qur'an.
Hasan al-Banna (1906-49), the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, sought to purge Western influences. He taught that Islam was the only solution and that democracy amounted to infidelity to Islam. Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), the leading theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood, objected to the idea of popular sovereignty altogether. He believed that the Islamic state must be based upon the Qur'an, which he argued provided a complete and moral system in need of no further legislation. Consultation—in the traditional Islamic sense rather than in the manner of Esposito's extrapolations—was sufficient.(Middle East Quarterly, David Bukay, Spring 2007)
It appears, therefore, that there is a serious impasse to Western-Islamist relations.  Not only do Islamists reject Western society as antithetical to Islamic values and feel that any action – political or military – justifies the furthering of these values; they reject American democracy and the fundamental principles on which it is based.

It is disingenuous to believe that the current political conflict is not about Islam.  It is most definitely about religion.  Of course hundreds of millions of Muslims go about their business without a thought of political ascendancy or dominance and for whom the raging fires of the Middle East have little to do with their pious and simple lives.  The very issue of freedom vs. values has certainly never come up in poor communities from Senegal to Indonesia.  Values are all important and provide the secure and hopeful context within which impoverished lives can be led. Freedom is a fiction.

Islamists politicize these values and thus gain the support of the simple faithful.  Bangladesh was until recently a ‘moderate’ Muslim country; but recently radical fundamentalism has made inroads.  It is easy to see why.  The poor Bangladeshi farmer who has nothing, who lives on a subsistence wage at best, has no social or economic prospects will of course support Islamists who offer to act in his behalf before the indifferent state and to help him gain his celestial rewards.  A deal no one could refuse.

Islamists have the cards stacked in their favor.  They bill themselves as the patriotic defenders of Islamic values very much under threat.  They offer themselves as advocates for the poor and disenfranchised.  They promise the integration of religion and state, a unified and peaceful place where all Muslims will be able to live well and in harmony.  They are the latter day armies of Islam and hope not only to reconquer the lands that the Arabs did under Mohammed in the 8th Century but to extend the realm.

There is a very good reason why the United States has stood by while the Middle East unravels.  We simply have not figured out what to do. Islamists are as implacable enemies as the Soviet Communists, but are moving targets.  They are a combination of the Viet Cong, al-Qaeda, al-Shaba, the IRA, and the Muslim Brotherhood; and their movement is a complex of religious sentiment, unforgotten history, socialist programs, and take-no-prisoners militancy.  The very fact that there are so many willing suicide bombers within the movement should be warning enough that we are fighting an almost unknowable enemy which is armed not only with rockets and explosive vests, but a militant belief in God.

The Middle East is very much about values – not freedom; and to confront it, the United States has to evolve a completely new approach where everything is on the table.  The Cold War is over, Communism is dead, the Soviet Union no longer exists; so why not enlist neo-Communists for the hunt; or even harness the anti-immigration sentiments spreading throughout Europe.  Europe is still in an accommodation mode, unwilling to accept the threat of Islamists and afraid to insult Islam. 

For years France, following its race-, religion-, and ethnicity-blind policies, has simply ignored the problem.  If the problems stay beyond the Périphérique and in the suburbs, they do not exist.  The Netherlands and Denmark are far more explicit and forthcoming in their perception of the Islamist threat and are beginning to disentangle their tolerance for Islam as a religion and Islamicism as a political enemy.

The war is just beginning, and it appears that the United States has no clue what to do.  To a degree this is understandable, for the very values of the Founding Fathers and the Enlightenment on which the country is based are being challenged.


  1. Informed rational freedom loving people have all the reasons in the world to fear islamic theocracies that combine mosque & state. The twin fogs of political correctness & ignorance must be dispersed before western society better understands this menace. Even a brief review of islamic theology & history quickly exposes the deadly roots of this evil ideology.

    Mohamhead was a 7th century murdering warlord who rose to power on a river of blood surrounded by thugs and gangsters using intimidation, violence, deception and trickery to expand their criminal empire while mercilessly suppressing and killing their opponents and enriching themselves on stolen booty.

    The evil koran is a collection of sayings and speeches by this diabolical madman claiming divine guidance from some mythical sky-god which has inspired generations of crazed fanatics to abhorrent behavior resulting in historys worst ever crimes against humanity starting 1400 years ago and still continuing even today.

    Islam is just another fascist totalitarian ideology used by power hungry fanatics on yet another quest for worldwide domination and includes all the usual human rights abuses & suppression of freedoms.

    and some snappy infographics, great for emailing...

  2. Jihadists, sharia-law lovers and muslims in general. I defy the little moon-shit demon called allah of islam who wants to be god. I mock the perverted, pedophile prophet muhammad of islam. I burn the words of the lying quran and I do all of this for the fun of it. Does that make me islamophobic? 


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