The West in the Growing Shadow of Jihad Or how the philosophical foundations of our civilisation are crumbling.
Apart from serving as Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks is a prominent philosopher and statesman. A member of the House of Lords and a professor at Oxford University and King’s College, he often acts as advisor to British (and other) premiers, and has written numerous books and articles.
Last year, he published his reflections on the 9/11 Attack (“Ten Years On”), tracing the causes of these events to a wider background. According to J. Sacks, to understand what happened in 2001, we must go back to 1989 - the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War and therefore also of the struggle between communism and capitalism that had gone on for 80 years. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe obtained their longed-after political and economic freedom, and it was widely believed that from that moment on capitalist democracy would reign supreme throughout the world. The creation and enlargement of the European Union and the boom on Wall Street were a sign of the times.
Few world thinkers (it would not do to say leaders, since politics does not leave room for thinking) took note of the significance of the moment Francis Fukuyama dubbed the “End of History”. As the Americans decided to attack Iraq and Afghanistan, the Russians were examining their own defeat in Central Asia and their inglorious retreat from Kabul and the Kabul area. It did not occur to anyone that Americans and their allies might fail, just as the Russians had.
What Fukuyama called the “end of history” can cyclically be called the end of civilisation. Rabbi Sacks references a work by a 14th century Arab thinker, Ibn Khaldun (full name Abu Zayd ‘Abdu Rahman bin Muhammad bin Khaldun Al-Hadrami). Ibn Khaldun was born in 1334 in Tunis, where his family had moved from Andalusia following the Spanish Reconquista. He served as an official and minister to several viziers. He was no stranger to the world of internal courtly intrigue (both as instigator and victim) and diplomacy: he successfully concluded peace with the Spanish king Pedro the Cruel on behalf of Muslim Granada. He spent his final years in Alexandria in Egypt, writing of the latter: “who has not seen [Egypt] does not know the power of Islam” (let us take this to heart). In 1401, Ibn Khaldun took part in a military expedition led by the Egyptian caliph against Timur, whose armies had besieged Damascus. He died in 1407 as a recognised philosopher and politician. His works inspired many thinkers, including Ottoman historians in the 17th century. It was only in the 19th century that they became known in the West.
His short biography makes it clear that his view of the world - which we will shortly describe - was not based solely on supposition, but on lucid “participatory observation”. He was familiar with the story of the fall of the Moors in Spain from family accounts; he had witnessed the rise and decline of various Arab rulers in Africa and seen with his own eyes the power of Timur’s (Tamerlane’s) Mongol empire, which had threatened Mamluk Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. Timur died in 1406. At this time the empire he had built was the most powerful in the world, in terms of territory, population and wealth. Ibn Khaldun met Timur personally in Damascus, and one would think that a man of his intelligence would have drawn conclusions from such an encounter.
Ibn Khaldun’s philosophical work “Al Muqqadimah” (“Introduction”[to the history of the world]) con-tains an extraordinary analysis of man and his actions in the universal sense - the exercise and pro-curement of power, both on the level of the individual and the collective, not yet called a “state” or “society”, but understood as civilisation - built by rulers and conditioned by an economy. It was clear to Ibn Khaldun that every empire eventually collapses, not because of external events, but due to in-creasing internal degradation.
We know the saying that the fall of Rome was not due to attacks by Barbarian tribes - these were eas-ily warded off by the legions - but to the excessive wantonness of its own citizens. Jews, similarly, think that the destruction of the Temple, symbolising the fall of the Kingdom of Israel and Judah, was caused by “disinterested hate”, when various groups, mutually accusing one another on ideological grounds, failed to take note of the fact that the weakness of the whole state organism had thereby been disclosed.
The collapse of empires should not come as a surprise, since humankind has a sufficiently long, re-corded (in writing) historical experience to confirm this. But this is often forgotten for some reason. Ibn Khaldun writes: “Every urban civilisation becomes helpless against the decadence which develops inside it. The rich grow lazy, and the poor become demanding. Social ties dissolve. People no longer think about the common good. They are no longer capable of making sacrifices for one another. They essentially lose the will to defend themselves. It is then that they become easy prey for those who inhabit the desert, for whom the struggle to survive is an ordinary thing”.
Applying these reflections to contemporary events, J. Sacks sees the year 1989 as marking the fall of two civilisations - western capitalism and soviet communism. In 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan, suffering defeat. Ten years later the American army entered Afghanistan, and today there is also talk of its withdrawal, its success being questionable. Afghanistan is becoming the new symbol of the collapse of the world we know - both of these events involve radical Islam which - whether we like it or not - has achieved victory in Afghanistan. Ibn Khaldun’s theory has been corroborated: empires disposing of the newest technologies have proven helpless against a group of simple fighters, with one change of clothing, a kalashnikov and a strong motivation, nourished by Muslim mullahs, teaching that “democracy” is but a new religion and should therefore be opposed at all cost. History also teaches that there are no social movements without ideology. There is no action, no revolution, until an idea is born.
The philosophy of Ibn Khaldun was well known to another Muslim philosopher: Sayyid Qutb (1906 - 1966). In the 1940s, Qutb was already well known in Egyptian intellectual circles as an educator, phi-losopher and poet. Considered a pro-Western figure, he qualified for a scholarship at the University of Colorado in the United States, where he stayed from 1948 to 1950. Following this episode he wrote 24 books, primarily devoted to a critique of the west, especially the United States, which he saw as ob-sessively pursuing materialism, violence and sex (which he supposedly witnessed in person). Paradoxi-cally, his experience of the quintessence of the democratic west compelled him towards radical Islam which he perceived as an “antidote” to the moral downfall of the world. He quit his job at the Ministry of Education to become engaged in the activity of the Muslim Brotherhood, becoming its chief ideo-logue. He gave this ideology its final shape in the manifesto of political Islam: “Ma’alim fi al-Tariq” (Milestones), a radically anti-secular and anti-western work based on a strict interpretation of the Koran. In the world of radical Islam Qutb is considered a holy martyr - found to be one of those responsible for an assassination attempt on president Nasser, he spent his final years in prison. After the trial, at which passages from “Milestones” were cited, he was found guilty of criminal incitement and hanged (1966). He wrote: “It is necessary for the new leadership [of the new global Islamic state to be created] to preserve and develop the material fruits of the creative genius of Europe, and also to provide mankind with such high ideals and values as have so far remained undiscovered by mankind, and which will also acquaint humanity with a way of life which is harmonious with human nature, which is positive and constructive, and which is practicable“. As he goes on to explain, such an order can only be brought about by Islamic law - sharia. This means that democracy should be employed in order to introduce radical theocracy. This subject supposedly merits separate analysis. We should note, however, that these ideas did not perish along with their author. The influence of Qutb on the ideologies of Islamic terrorist groups, first in Europe, then in other parts of the world, is undeniable. His triumph is the recent victory of an extreme Islamist in the democratic Egyptian presidential elections, who in his first words following the announcement of the election results openly proclaimed that he would reaffirm Islamic religious law - sharia.
Sayyid’s brother, Muhammad Qutb (b. 1919) also served his share of prison sentences. In 1972, he moved to Saudi Arabia (he was still alive in Mecca in 2006), became a professor of Islamic studies at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, devoting himself to promoting the legacy of Sayyid Qutb. Through radical Wahhabi circles, his teaching reached the circle of Osama bin Laden and became the doctrine of Al-Qaeda. One of Prof. Qutb’s fervent students was Ayman al-Zawahiri, who later became the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. His academic thesis, written under the direction of Qutb, bears the title “Knights under the Prophet’s Banner”.
Contemporary European philosophy - from the moment it ceases to presume a connection to God, proposed two extreme solutions: false transcendence, attaining its peak in the “Übermensch“ (nazism, communism), or the rejection of all narrative as an unnecessary burden, and the creation of a model “technocrat” (liberalism).
Departing from the above idea, through its attack on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda supposed that the West was too decadent and too self-centred to foresee such an insolent act: the demolition of a world power, the heart of America, New York. This supposition proved correct. “Muslim barbarians” had won against the self-satisfied urban dandy.
Summing up what has been said, let us recall the words of Jonathan Sacks: “None of us should be in any doubt as to the seriousness of what is at stake. Europe today is pursuing the chimera of societies without a shared moral code, nations without a collective identity, cultures without a respect for tradi-tion, groups without a concern for the common good, and politics without the slightest sense of his-tory. [...] The question is not radical Islam but, does the West believe in itself any more? Is it capable of renewing itself as it did two centuries ago? Or will it crumble as did the Soviet Union from internal decay“. On September 11, 2011, we saw the enemy - it was our own reflection in the mirror.
But what to do then? We won’t answer that question, but let us have a look at one more thinker, a Neapolitan, Giambattista Vico (1688 - 1744). In his work devoted to the development of humankind, entitled “Scientia Nuova” he analysed a unique quality of man, namely the capacity for speech. He concluded that social development is analogous to the development of one’s capacity to use language: civilisation develops from “inarticulate signs” towards “sophisticated and difficult” expression, only to revert back to barbaric forms. Vico claimed that there is mutual interplay and harmony between divinity, humanity and nature, meanwhile as civilisation develops, man, seeking to ensure progress, passes from communication that expresses primitive needs to the search for spiritual (poetic) inspiration. Imagination becomes the new means by which he develops.
One must realise that the philosophy of Islam does not attach any value to imagination, freedom of thought and creativity. As in any primitive society, it prizes power and violence, trying to order the world according to its tenets, in accordance with a set strategy - it does not attempt to explain why sharia is better than “anything else”. Those who fail to agree are forcefully persecuted, tolerating even the most barbaric of practices, such as “honor killings” (to me - utterly dishonourable) of women suspected of extra- or pre-marital relations, cutting off the hands of thieves and other such forms of behavior. It does not admit the idea of “freedom of expression and belief” - including religion or the absence thereof, “equality”, “peaceful coexistence” and other principles developed by the western world. This is what jihad (which is nothing but the expansion of the sphere of Islam) is, and the views spread by Muslim circles domesticated in the West, proclaiming it to be an internal struggle, a path towards self-improvement, should be viewed as fiction.
Jihad is conducted in a wide or narrow sense by implementing Islam through laborious ideological work, through various organisations in Europe and using a terminology the West has grown accus-tomed to, while rigidly exacting obedience to Koranic law in one’s own back yard. The “enemy’s” methods, such as democracy, are used wherever necessary in order to attain one’s goal - what Sayyid Qutb encouraged.
For Europe and the civilisations of the so-called West, understood more broadly, the answer lies in “indigenous” ethnic, religious, but also liberal or even libertarian communities which have preserved their fervour and tradition, constituting a counterweight to the introduction of sharia and the estab-lishment of a caliphate, taking no heed of the ideological hegemon (whether this be the Catholic Church or radical Islam), and stubbornly, laboriously defending the world of their beliefs. This also strengthens freedom of speech and expression - but one should take up an own, true fight for this - for freedom - equality - fraternity: the triad of values guiding modern revolutions - the French, the Ameri-can, the Spring of Nations or Polish national uprisings. If contemporary Europeans have “outgrown” the fear of God in the heavens (as exemplified in Judeo-Christian values) then let them create a new paradigm they will fight to defend in the form of jihad-holy war: the defence of democracy and free-dom of thought. Whosoever infringes on these principles will have to face the wrath of the pluralist society.