To the Editor:
Andrew Bernstein’s article, “The Tragedy of Theology: How Religion Caused and Extended the Dark Ages” (TOS, Winter 2006–2007), demolishes both the philosophical and the historical arguments that Professor Rodney Stark makes in his recent book, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. Borrowing Dr. Bernstein’s own words, I would like to thank him for the “passionate rationality” he employed in his analysis of Stark’s book—a book whose popularity indicates an unfortunate religious resurgence in the West.
In his article, Dr. Bernstein writes:
In sum, Western Europeans rediscovered Aristotle’s writings when they were desperately eager for the wisdom and cognitive method those works contained. It is no exaggeration to claim that when Aristotle’s method of observation-based rationality, in concert with innumerable specific theories and insights, was culturally prevalent, great advances followed; when absent or suppressed, there ensued only ages miserably dark. (p. 30)
This insight raises an interesting question. Why were so many men of the 12th and 13th centuries in Western Europe eager for Aristotle’s objective methods, but their predecessors and their contemporaries in other lands—such as the eastern Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Middle East—were not? In other words, why did Aristotle’s works undergo a lasting revival in 12th- and 13th-century Western Europe, but not earlier and not in other regions, where Aristotle’s texts had never been lost? Why then and why there?
Andrew Bernstein replies:
Dear Mr. Laughlin,
Thank you for your letter and your excellent question. Why, you ask, did medieval Europeans embrace Aristotle and the Greeks? More broadly, why is Western culture, despite all its flaws, more committed to reason than is any other culture?
To cast the answer in economic terms: The Greeks were first to market. Aristotelian and Greek thinking lie at the foundation of Western civilization—and of no other—and the Greek’s rational, this-worldly approach became entrenched in the West prior to Christianity. (Judaism, though temporally concurrent with the Greeks, was Middle Eastern, not European; and its enormous influence lies in providing the wellspring of Christianity some three to four centuries after the full flowering of Greek civilization.) It is an incalculable boon that the Greek influence on the West preceded the rise of Christianity: Had the religion come first and Greek thought only subsequently, faith-based zeal would have expunged reason, science, and secularism in their infancy. If you think I exaggerate, note that in 529 AD the Christian emperor, Justinian I, closed all the pagan schools of philosophy—including Plato’s Academy—and forbade any pagan to teach; this effectively ended eleven (often) illustrious centuries of Greek philosophy. Had Christianity come to prominence eleven centuries earlier, it is highly unlikely that pagan Greek philosophy would have had a chance to develop.
Ancient Greek thought is at the foundation, on the curriculum, and in the lifeblood of the West. No force has succeeded in extirpating the Greek approach from the West’s basic premises—not the Christians, not the Nazis, not the Communists, not the Islamists. The Greek heritage was too strong to be wiped out even by the Dark Ages. For example, the Western Europeans retained Aristotle’s works on logic and applied them rigorously (although in a purely formal manner); further, they knew of Aristotle’s other writings and of his exalted reputation as an ancient legend; and they knew that the thinkers of later antiquity had regarded his knowledge of nature as exceeding that of any other man in history.
It is widely recognized that knowledge of nature, not of “super-nature,” promotes life on earth. Therefore, when the works of Aristotle—the master of natural science and secular philosophy—were rediscovered in 12th-century Islamic Spain, it is no mystery that Western European thinkers—after centuries of suppression and penury—turned to him with the desperate hope that his wisdom could relieve their earthly sufferings. And, as the history of the West since that time attests, not only was suffering relieved; life proper to man was made possible.
By contrast, observe the results of the Greek influence on a culture that had faith and religiosity at its foundation—a culture in which men did not share a basic reverence for reason. The recognition and study of Aristotle’s seminal works did lead to significant advances outside of Europe. During Europe’s Dark and Middle Ages, when the preponderance of Aristotle’s works were lost in the West, for example, Muslim scholars in Islamic Spain and elsewhere throughout the Arab world retained them, studied them assiduously, and, with their help, made advances in the sciences, medicine, and so on. It is no stretch to say that, one thousand years ago, the intellectual positions of the West and the Middle East were reversed: The Muslims were more secular and rational, the Christians more religious and faith-based.
Tragically, however, Middle Eastern culture did not share with the West a Greek-influenced foundation; consequently, the Middle East’s acceptance of reason was fleeting. The highly influential Muslim theologian and mystical philosopher, al-Ghazali (1058–1111), was a philosophical skeptic who explicitly rejected Aristotle, the Greeks, and reason in favor of faith; he excoriated as non-believers the falasifa—a group of pro-reason Islamic philosophers that included the famed physician and philosopher Avicenna—and labeled these advanced thinkers “corrupters of the faith.” His major work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, though rebutted by the Arab philosopher Averroes in the next century, set the course for the future of Islamic epistemology. (The brilliant Aristotelian commentaries of Averroes had a major impact on Thomas Aquinas and the rise of Christian Aristotelianism—but, sadly, had little long-term impact on his own culture.) Men of the Arab-Islamic world were confronted with a fundamental alternative: rationality or faith—reason or unreason—the Aristotelianism of the falasifa or the mysticism of al-Ghazali. In accordance with their culture’s irrational beginnings and the fundamentals of religion, they chose faith. The tragic repercussions of that choice haunt the world to this day.
In summary, whereas the Aristotelian rationality and this-worldly concern that was embedded in the West from the outset made it that much easier for the West to later re-embrace Aristotle—the faith that was so deeply embedded in Muslim culture led to the tragic dismissal of Greek thought.
Let me close by stressing that cultures are composed of individual men, each of whom, as Ayn Rand observed, is a being of volitional consciousness. This means that the West can indeed backslide into religious fanaticism—or move forward, rejecting Jesus and his followers in favor of Aristotle and his. It also means that the Arab world is capable of embracing reason and secularism—or of remaining mired in faith and its attendant violence, suffering, and death. What each culture ultimately does depends on the philosophical ideas that its people—especially its intellectuals—choose to embrace. Let us keep vociferously advocating the ideas of Aristotle and his followers.
Poughkeepsie, New York
To the Editor:
John David Lewis’s article “No Substitute for Victory” (TOS, Winter 2006–2007) is the best work I have read on the issue of Islamic Totalitarianism. In regard to his proposal, however, a key question remains unanswered in my mind. Dr. Lewis argues effectively that, in a war against a determined aggressor, the defending nation must achieve complete victory in the form of an unconditional surrender. Historically, the aggressor has been a particular government—such as that of Germany or Japan. But our current enemy, Islamic Totalitarianism, is not confined to political borders. This is a significant difference. For instance, while an organization like Hezbollah is sponsored by Iran, it does not necessarily take direct orders from the Iranian government, and it operates in several different countries. Given this operational independence, it seems unlikely that Hezbollah would honor a surrender agreement between the U.S. and Iran. Should we also demand the unconditional surrender of Hezbollah and other such organizations (including Al Qaeda) and relentlessly bomb any country that they call home? Or should we expect that, once their state sponsors are defeated, they will wither and die?
Pomona, New York
To the Editor:
John David Lewis’s excellent article “No Substitute for Victory” argues convincingly for the destruction of state sponsors of Islamic Totalitarianism. In speaking with others about my views, I regularly encounter an argument along these lines: “What you say may be true, but it does not take into account that the Arabs are victims too, that they were displaced by the creation of Israel. Although suicide bombing is certainly not the answer, is the anger and resentment felt by Arabs not justified? After all, it was Western nations in the U.N. that created Israel—at the Arabs’ expense. It seems hardly appropriate for the West to take such violent action against these victims.” I am curious as to how Dr. Lewis would respond to such an argument.
John David Lewis replies to the letters of Mr. Edge and Mr. Nichols:
Mr. Edge and Mr. Nichols raise important issues, and I appreciate their thoughtful letters. In answering their questions, I will take the opportunity to address some related issues as well.
Mr. Edge raises what I call the “stateless” argument, which usually runs as follows: During World War II, Japan, Germany, and Italy were political states, under centralized leadership, following a political and military chain of command. This political unity made it possible to mount an offense against a defined political enemy, to focus our efforts toward his demise, and to demand the surrender of the political leadership. Once the Nazis were gone, the entity that was Nazi Germany collapsed, and the war was over. Similarly, once the Emperor announced the end of the war to the Japanese people, the war ended, even as the nation of Japan continued to exist. But the Islamic Totalitarian movement does not emanate from a single state; it takes many forms and has achieved differing degrees of success in various states. The Wahhabist leadership of Saudi Arabia, for instance, is often fervently opposed to the Shia leadership of Iran, which was opposed to the Taliban in Afghanistan, which bore little in common with the authoritarian government of Egypt. Further, Islamic cells in the United States are not the same as those operating in England, let alone Nigeria and Indonesia. The collapse of one government, the argument goes, will not end the movement; it may actually strengthen the movement in other areas.
Taking this argument further, the lack of a single political center reflects the tribal nature of the Middle East. The Iranians, for instance, are of Persian descent; they are neither Arab nor necessarily friends with people in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) or Egypt. The violent conflicts between multifarious Persian, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian regimes—and their near continuous fighting over the area of the modern Holy Land—go back nearly five thousand years. Doesn’t the strategy we need to deal with such a threat differ from the strategy we used in World War II?
Let us first remember the historical impetus of Islam. The precept “All Muslims are Brothers” goes to a major mechanism by which the religion has spread. Islam was specifically intended to rise above the many clannish, tribal, ethnic, and political divisions, and to unite all of those who submit to the will of Allah. For those who take the rule of Allah on earth literally and seriously, the scope of this unity involves more than personal religious belief; it includes submission to Islamic political leadership and Islamic law, and obedience to unalterable rules for family life and personal relationships. Islam has historically included the idea that the community as a whole has a duty to spread this submission—and today’s Islamic leadership embraces the idea that each individual Muslim has a personal duty to do the same. Accordingly, Islam demands the creation of an ideological state, which requires political submission to Islamic leadership and its doctrines for the same reason that it demands personal submission to Allah. Those who do not submit personally to Allah must at least submit politically to Islamic rule and accept a second-class status. All of this is supposed to supersede national borders (as some Marxists claimed communism would do).
Note that the many smaller groups— such as Hezbollah (“Party of God”) and Hamas (“Islamic Resistance Movement”) —are intended to do precisely this: to rise above tribal differences and to establish Islamic-based rule that transcends national boundaries. Hezbollah, for instance, seeks to have a presence in many countries, to foment revolution across borders. Although from one perspective such groups are independent of each other, from a deeper perspective, they are after the same thing and supported by the same base. Each is supported by Islamic states—principally by Iran (even Hamas, which is Sunni, is spiritually if not materially aided by Iran). Each is dedicated to the destruction of Israel and to the establishment of governments based on Islamic principles. What brings these seemingly disparate groups together? It is their common enemy (non-Muslims) and their common goal with respect to that enemy (making them submit to Islamic law). The only way we can confront them effectively is to recognize their common aims, to cut off the state support that they need to survive, and to prohibit their ideology inthe realm of politics.
As an ideological movement, Islamic Totalitarianism depends on an idea. As a political movement Islamic Totalitarianism requires resources, safe areas in which to train, and an international stage. The ideological and material aspects come together through state support, which is both a demonstration that Allah’s path works, and a means to promote the movement. There can be no victory over this movement as long as the states that support it continue to exist. Destroying Iran would demonstrate the bankruptcy of the idea and end material support for the movement. Whether or not the destruction of Iran will be sufficient to end this movement, it is necessary. A visible, indeed spectacular, end to its most intransigent example of violent revolution will be necessary to demonstrate to the others the hopelessness of the movement as a whole. Only then, in the light of this realization, will the myriad weaker states and groups face the failure of their own mission and deflate.
The very fact that Islamic Totalitarianism is stateless—yet requires state support to have any chance of success—strengthens the argument that the states that most openly and intransigently support its violent spread must go.
The question of which state is most openly and actively dedicated to the spread of Islam by violent means is easy. It is Iran. The open destruction of Iran is the sine qua non needed for the ultimatum that must be given to other states. Destroying Iran would demonstrate to the Islamic Totalitarian movements across the world that their failure is imminent. This point must be stressed: The advocates of Islamic Totalitarianism must make a connection in their minds between the establishment of a Totalitarian Islamic state and personal destruction. They will not make this connection until we demonstrate its truth.
But, an objection follows, what about Saudi Arabia? Fifteen of nineteen 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, and the government of Iran may have had no direct say in the decision to attack New York. A plausible argument can be made that the spread of Islamic ideology has been driven more effectively by the Saudis—who control Islam’s two holiest shrines—than through violent revolution. Should we not take down the Saudis first, and then confront Iran?
I maintain: no. The first reason is that we must disavow any notion that the purpose of our response is to “punish” anyone for 9/11. Our approach to the war must be based on a wide strategic and political integration and on the goal of destroying the enemy as a whole, not on finding those involved in a particular attack. To those who say that the Iranians had nothing to do with 9/11—as I hear in question periods at lectures—I answer that the Iranians had as much to do with 9/11 as Nazi Germany had to do with Pearl Harbor. Given the common aims shared by Germany, Italy, and Japan in 1941—and the support that they provided each other in non-material ways—the lack of any particular command decision was irrelevant. Fortunately, in 1941, we recognized the common threat posed by all of them, and we demanded an end to Nazi Germany. (I would, of course, have taken the integration further. Recognizing that the Soviet Union was in the same category as Nazi Germany [i.e., a dictatorship], I would have encouraged the Soviets and Nazis to kill each other—after which we could have moved in over the ashes. But the point remains: Nazi Germany and Shintoistic Japan were both enemies of the United States, and Germany’s lack of direct involvement in Pearl Harbor did not exempt it from our bombs.)
Now, consider the political context today. The Iranians are striving for regional dominance, and their regional opponents have been the secular dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and the Sunni government of Saudi Arabia. By destroying Saddam, we destroyed the only regional impediment to the Iranian Shia and empowered them to rise in Iraq. Suppose the Saudi regime was taken out and Saudi Arabia fell into civil war. In short order, Iran would control Iraq, Syria would share a border with Iran—and Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons would give them unqualified dominance over the region. Conversely, the chance of a Sunni–Saudi takeover of Iran is nil. The Iranians must go first.
Note that the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons is itself sufficient reason for the United States to end their regime. Should they gain those weapons, the Saudis and Egyptians will have to counter them with their own programs. Any thinking person should grasp the horrendous consequences of this.
The argument follows easily for smaller groups like the Shia Hezbollah and the Sunni Hamas. They differ in their methods, their political loyalties, and their sectarian allegiances, but each is as much a part of the Islamic Totalitarian movement as the other. They are far weaker than the political states that feed them. As the states supporting them fail, they will lose material and ideological sustenance—and even if the local populations still support them, they will be no significant threat to us. Our potential allies will be emboldened by the collapse of the big threats and will be much more likely to dispatch these smaller groups under the umbrella of our rejuvenated self-confidence.
Let us now turn to the question of Israel. Isn’t the existence of Israel the source of Muslim anger, and the root problem that must be resolved? Should we not “moderate” our support of Israel and perhaps make concessions to her enemies in order to appear “balanced”? Some history here is important.
After WWII, the European nations had no more desire to maintain their mandates in the Middle East. The U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181—the so-called “Partition Plan” of November 29, 1947—set aside two areas in Palestine to become states. (A separate international status was assigned to Jerusalem.) One area became Israel, by declaration in May of 1948, and in accordance with the U.N. mandate. The Arabs categorically rejected the plan. They had a choice: draw a line in the sand and declare a state, or declare war. They declared war. This was their fateful decision, and war is what they have waged ever since.
There was nothing of economic importance in the area. The inhabitants were farmers or herdsmen; there was no industry. Yet Israel has grown, materially and politically, while the other area has stagnated—because the Arabs and their supporters would rather destroy Israel than do something positive for themselves.
Consider what Israel’s enemies did in the two decades that followed the partition plan, in particular, Gamal Nasser in Egypt and the Baath Party under Nureddin al-Atassi in Syria. Such leaders had visions of a great political power, stretching from Africa to Syria; with that end in mind, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in the 1950s, and, in alliance with Syria, launched a two-front war against Israel in 1967. (This war was little more than a continuation of the conflicts that have swept across the Levant Coast area for millennia—only now with global implications.) Had Israel not been in the way, this greater state would have been created, Egypt and Syria would likely have waged war against each other, and the whole area would have fallen under a dictatorship led by the last thug standing. The war was renewed in 1973 by Hafez al-Assad of Syria and Anwar Sadat of Egypt (the Yom Kippur War, launched during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan). Egypt’s defeat motivated Sadat to make peace with Israel—and when Egypt accepted Israel’s right to exist, Israel gave back the Sinai Desert.
All of this occurred in a context of pressure from Islamic fundamentalist groups within Egypt and Syria, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, who advocated for stricter Islamic rule. Since then, the unremitting war against Israel by militant groups, under the sponsorship of Syria and others, has continued—albeit strengthened with the success of the Islamic revolution in Iran. This indicates the danger that an independent Arab state in the area of Palestine would create—especially under the terms established over the past two generations. Imagine Hamas equipped with the full resources of a government. They use terror and homemade rockets now because they have no direct access to the resources available to governments. They demand a Palestinian state so that they will have direct access to such resources. In other words, Hamas’s demand for a Palestinian state is a demand for a full-blown war with Israel; they seek an “independent” state in order to gain the power necessary to eradicate the Jews.
All Israel has ever wanted is the right to exist. But this is too much for these groups and the states who support them to accept. In their view, Israel must cease to exist.
Why? Why is tiny Israel such a problem to nations with vastly greater territories? The main reason is not Palestinian displacement—for many Israelis asked local people not to leave, and Arabs to this day have positions within the Israeli government. Many locals were ordered to leave by Arab leadership. This coerced segregation continues today; Palestinians cannot emigrate to other Middle Eastern nations (except Jordan); Kuwait, for instance, expelled some 300,000 after 1991. Palestinian displacement is caused by the policies of the Arab governments, not by Israel. By what right can a Muslim nation demand that Palestinians be admitted into Israel, while it does not allow them into its own borders?
On a deeper level the reason for the conflict with Israel is simply irrational hatred—hatred of the very existence of a non-Arab, non-Muslim state in the area. Any objective consideration of the facts—such as the fact that the rights of Arabs living inside Israel are recognized and respected far more than are those of Arabs living outside Israel—would lead one to conclude that Israel should be the model for the rest of the Middle East, not its enemy. Arabs should be flocking to Israel to ask how the Israelis have succeeded. Instead, they hurl bombs at the country to destroy its success.
Arabs have consciously fueled this hatred for two generations by “teaching” their children that Jews are descended from pigs and apes, that rabbis grind up Palestinian children to make matzo balls, that Jewish doctors steal the eyes of Arab children, and that every Israeli is an “occupier” who deserves death.
But this hatred also has political roots in the nature of Islamic rule and its doctrine of dominance over subdued peoples. When Israel was founded, millions of refugees were indeed created. Forgotten, displaced people fled oppression and needed refuge to start a new life. These refugees were the nearly three million Jews who had lived in Muslim lands; they were the dhimmis who were subjected to the debased status of second-class citizens—a status without a name until Bat Ye’or named it dhimmitude. Israel marks the escape of these millions from dhimmitude, and their creation of a permanent state that rejects Islamic rule. Yes, Israel is a nominally “Jewish” state, and many Jews are motivated by fantastic claims to an ancient homeland. But in its actual operation, Israel has a constitutional government, an independent judiciary, an uncensored press, elections, peaceful transfer of offices—and, most importantly, a political system that largely protects the rights of its citizens, including Arabs, in a way unparalleled in the Middle East. Israel deserves our support for these reasons. The destruction of Israel would mark the success of Islamic jihad and the return of millions to dictatorship and dhimmitude.
I would like to address a final question that is often raised in response to my proposal and that has important philosophical implications. My proposal may be right, it may recognize the facts, and it may provide a pro-American policy alternative—but do we have the will to embrace and enact it? If Americans are unwilling to support such action, are not those who advocate it pushing a fantasy agenda that is doomed from the start?
The nature of the response that I have received to my proposal to date demonstrates the willingness of Americans to defend themselves—if properly informed. But even if it were true that Americans by and large would be hostile to this policy, I would promote it anyway. The primary concern here—as with any important issue in life—is not whether others agree. The primary concern is whether it is true and good. If an idea is true and good—if it corresponds to the facts and to the requirements of man’s life—then only good can come from advocating it, and only bad can come from ignoring or suppressing it. If my prescription is the only way to end the threats against us—and, having heard no viable alternatives, I maintain that it is—then loyalty to reality demands its promotion. We must persuade our leaders, our fellow citizens, and our allies of what we know to be true—not argue for some half-truth or non-truth in order to gain support. We can win this war—but only by recognizing and advocating the true and the good.
John David Lewis
P.S. The Myth of Islamic Tolerance, edited by Robert Spencer (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005), has a wealth of essays on the people subdued by Islamic rule over the centuries. See especially the material by Bat Ye’or and David G. Littman.