The latest theory of Islamic extremism: it’s a pastiche

(This blog entry was drafted on August 31.)

It was a column by David Warren that inspired Mark Steyn the other day to describe Islamic extremism as a third-hand pastiche of castoff notions from 20th century totalitarian ideologies, and therefore nothing we have to worry much about, in the process praising Warren as a “great” columnist. What is new about Warren’s theory is that instead of giving the usual line that Islamic extremism is a combination of Islam and 20th century totalitarianism, which still leaves Islamic extremism sounding pretty dangerous, he says that Islamic extremism is a combination of Islam and the mere detritus of 20th century totalitarianism, and therefore little more than a joke. I wrote Warren the below e-mail.

Dear Mr. Warren

After saying that the belief system of today’s Muslim extremists has very little to do with Islam, but is pieced together from 20th century totalitarian sources, you write:

“If I were a Muslim, with the inheritance of Islamic tradition behind me, I’d be deeply ashamed of the babbling idiots who claimed to speak for me. I would be very loud in contradicting them.”

But have you not noticed Muslims are NOT loudly contradicting the extremists? Since they are not, doesn’t that suggest to you the extremists are not so out of step with Muslim tradition as you seem to believe?

Also, what is this great “inheritance of Islamic tradition” you’re referring to? Is it the tradition in which every Muslim is commanded by Allah to fight all men until they submit to Allah? Is it the one that commands death for anyone who converts out of Islam? Is it the tradition in which even the trees and stones call out for the death of Jews? These are not grafted-on commandments and expressions of Islam, they are as central to the faith as anything can be.

However, the main theme of your article is that

“the West is not today under siege from Muslim fanatics because of a resurgence of Islam, but because of the West’s own moral and intellectual decline…. We have a problem in us, not in them. It is the recovery of our own sense of what we are, what we believe, and what we are about, that would defeat Afghan cave-dwellers and shrieking ayatollahs fairly quickly.”

So according to you, Islam is not the problem (since Islam, you say, is a good inheritance), nor is militant Islam the problem (since militant Islam is just a pastiche of totalitarian fluff). No, the only problem is our own moral decadence.

So here’s my question for you. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that you are right, and that the only problem is our loss of moral confidence. Let us then imagine that we recover our moral confidence. Once that happens, what should we do about Islam? What should we do about all the Muslims in the West? What should we do about the jihadists in Britain? What should we do about Muslim immigration? What should we do about Iran and its nuclear program?

Of course, I agree with you it was our own liberalism that weakened the West and allowed the Islam threat to grow and develop as it has. In particular, it was our own liberalism that allowed Islam into the West in the form of millions of Muslim immigrants. But then I go to the next stage of the discussion and talk about the things we must do to defend ourselves, once we cure ourselves of our paralyzing liberalism.

By contrast, you seem to be implying that we wouldn’t have to do anything about Islam. We simply have to recover our morality and our identity, and the Islam problem would go away magically by itself. I infer this about you because you do not suggest a single thing that we ought to do about Islam once we have recovered our moral confidence. Yes, you speak of defeating Afghan cave-dwellers and shrieking ayatollahs, implying some kind of military action. But what action? The rulers of Iran are not going to go away merely as a result of our feeling better about ourselves. We are going to have to do things to them. Meanwhile, you don’t offer a single syllable about Islam in the West, which in the long run is the most threatening. As a result, your article sounds like a formula for avoiding doing anything about the West’s Islam problem.

If I am wrong, please correct me.

Lawrence Auster

Mr. Warren did not honor me with a reply.

By the way, I cannot remember offhand a single occasion when a mainstream conservative has replied to a challenge from me about the latest non-Islam theory of Islamic extremism that he was putting forth, no matter how polite my e-mail was. In fact, on several occasions, conservatives who had previously been on good terms with me and who had not minded it when I had criticized them on this or that point, would write a column saying that it’s only modern Islam that is the problem, and traditional Islam is fine, and I would write to them challenging their points, and they did not reply. I repeat that these were people who had always replied to my previous e-mails. So, is there something wrong with me, or with the mainstream conservatives? For me, it would be inconceivable not to reply to intelligent sincere criticism. Yet this is standard behavior for today’s mainstream conservatives.

Yesterday VFR reader Stephen F. jokingly spoke of the Lawrence Auster Denial Syndrome, which makes conservatives go into anger or denial or silence when the liberal nature of their ideas is exposed. However, we must also face the likelihood that for many intellectuals (I am not speaking of anyone in particular, and I do not know that this is true of anyone in particular), it may not be a matter of sincere though wrongheaded beliefs that they are not prepared to defend, but a matter of saying things they don’t really believe in order to get along in the ideological climate of our time, to maintain their professional relationships, their career, their funding sources and so on. They don’t engage in debate that challenges their beliefs because they are not interested in getting at the truth of things, they are into protecting their position on a certain team.

- end of initial entry -

Clayton R. writes:

You say in the last paragraph of your VFR entry concerning David Warren’s “non-Islam theory of Islamic extremism” that (please allow me to paraphrase) many intellectuals “may” be interested more in protecting their own interests and pleasing all the right people on their “team” than they are in getting at the truth of things. You are being overly cautious in saying “may,” I think.

Although it’s certainly difficult to determine whether or not this description applies to a “majority” or “most” intellectuals, from what I’ve seen of the world and its people, a great many intellectuals are precisely the kind of people you’ve described. The more mainstream the intellectual, the stronger the pull he must feel to adapt his views to whatever is considered broadly acceptable. He feels this because he wants to be “successful,” because he’s concerned about his career.

So, I think you’ve hit on one of the great moral failings of our time (albeit one to which, like all moral failings, humankind is perennially susceptible): the willingness to sacrifice one’s integrity (intellectual and otherwise) for the sake of base self-interest. Anyone with serious convictions concerning transcendental things of higher value (such as integrity, the condition of one’s soul, or the truth) would never succumb to this particular moral failing: having recognized the relative worth of the transcendental in relation to mere worldly “success” and other such things, he would put what’s moral and true first and foremost. Now, as you yourself have pointed out on more than one occasion, our culture has lost its sense of the higher, transcendental side of things. That’s why people nowadays are much more susceptible to the kind of moral failing that you notice in some of our intellectuals.

(By the way, I twice emailed Thomas Sowell what I took to be a serious, intelligent challenge to some of his statements in his latest book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals. Now, I have no idea how many emails he receives. Nor do I know whether or not he actually read my emails. I do know, however, that he never replied. Nor has he ever addressed this serious concern in any of his many columns.)

LA replies:
Thank you for your insights. This is something I’ve been thinking about for the last year or so. It’s not “natural” for me to think along these lines, because my orientation is toward getting at the truth of things, which assumes that other people are also interested in getting at the truth of things, and if people are not even concerned about whether what they say is true, it destroys the very possibility of debate. Yet I do think that what you have said sadly describes what the conservative movement has to a large extent become. For evidence, one need only think about the unceasing flood of transparent nonsense that the Bush supporters have put out for the last three years in defense of the notion that we were “winning” in Iraq.

Stephen F. writes:

I also am starting to think that many conservatives are not serious, as your reader Clayton suggests. Or, at any rate, they retreat into a less serious pose when threatened. People like Daniel Pipes at least try to respond to criticism. I have seen several “conservative” speakers lately who exuded a breezy attitude. It is as if they are afraid of actual confrontation or disturbing their audience in any way.

They seem to be saying conservatism consists of having “common sense” and contrast themselves with “unhinged” liberals, padded with plenty of jokes and markers of “hipness,” all the while assuring their audience that of course they are not racist, support legal immigration, etc.

I met a prominent Wall Street Journal writer and heard him speak on education. His attitude was that “liberals get really silly sometimes” by doing things like admit a Taliban member as an undergraduate to Yale. He said that our educational institutions have become detached from reality and need to be fixed by opening them to the free market. I was trying to wrap my mind around the idea that online universities and offering courses based on moneymaking potential or popularity could save Western civilization. He also joked about his “debates” with Al Sharpton, laughingly saying “Al’s an all right guy…nobody takes him seriously…not even himself.”

My feeling about your work is that you are trying to build up more “manly” standards for public debate—that it should be based on finding the truth and that public opinion-makers should expect harsh criticism and be prepared to respond to it (while remaining personally civil). Sometimes it is painful to see the reactions you generate, but I am really glad that you stand up for truth the way you do.

LA replies

This is an accurate and disturbing description of mainstream “conservative” unseriousness.

As for my “truth-seeking” modus operandi, that’s just my personality, for good or bad. When people say things that don’t make sense, I challenge them on it. This does not make me popular, but I think it does accomplish useful things.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at October 11, 2006 08:40 PM | Send

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