Faith, Reason and the War on Jihad

George Weigel's Call to Action
Westchester Institute - e-Column

Clear thinking on complex moral and cultural issues is a scarce commodity these days. George Weigel, Catholic theologian and one of America's foremost commentators on issues of religion and public life, has for years been responding to that paucity with a consistent output of robust, penetrating and cogent thought.

Last September 11th, I dedicated this column (9/11, Jihadism and Reason) to highlighting some of Weigel's reflections on the occasion of the 6th anniversary of the attacks. Those thoughts were an excerpt from the sixth William E. Simon lecture which Weigel had delivered for the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington in January 2007. Happily, the elements of that lecture have now taken the form of a new book entitled Faith, Reason, and the War against Jihadism.

The book is, quite simply, a must-read for persons who are trying to be thoughtful, realistic and objective about the complex issues posed by Muslim jihadists to western civilization as we know it. If you think my posing the situation in such stark terms is hyperbole, then you will likely find Weigel's blunt assessment of things hyperbolic as well. "The challenge of global jihadism cannot be avoided," writes Weigel. "The war that has been declared against us -- and by "us" I mean the West, not simply the Unites States -- must be engaged, and through a variety of instruments, many of them not military."

The fact that many might discover hyperbole in such declarations takes us to the very heart of Weigel's message: it has taken far too long for the U.S. and other western democracies to understand the situation we are in.

Over the weekend, I interviewed George on a number of issues the book raises, and probed him for his take on the future of the conflict between Jihadism and the West.

FTB: You note that "Christians have taken an aggressive and bloody-minded posture toward Islam on many occasions over the past fourteen hundred years, an aggressiveness that has left deep resentments in the Islamic world..." (p. 21). Is this one of the root causes of Jihad?

George Weigel: Resentment of Western success ("the Great Satan" and all that) is certainly part of the motivational mix among jihadists today, although the endless references to "Zionist Crusaders" nicely mix 20th century hatreds with 12th century hatreds. But the basic point to be stressed is that jihadists have their own motivations: i.e., if "jihadism" is the religiously inspired ideology that teaches that it is the moral duty of all Muslims to employ all means necessary to compel the world's submission to Islam, that in itself is motivation enough.

FTB: We grew accustomed to Pope John Paul II reiterating the need to get at the "roots" of terrorism, which he identified as various forms of injustice. For instance:

History, in fact, shows that the recruitment of terrorists is more easily achieved in areas where human rights are trampled upon and where injustice is a part of daily life. This is not to say that the inequalities and abuses existing in the world excuse acts of terrorism: there can never, of course, be any justification for violence and disregard for human life. However, the international community can no longer overlook the underlying causes that lead young people especially to despair of humanity, of life itself and of the future, and to fall prey to the temptations of violence, hatred, and a desire for revenge at any cost (Address to new British ambassador, Sept. 2002).

Do you find in this notion -- particularly as it is insisted on today -- at all naïve or misguided?

Weigel: The jihadists of 9/11 were not the wretched of the earth; they were college-educated, middle-class people. The command structure of al-Qaeda is not composed of peasants or the Arab lumpenproletariat, but of rich men and professional men. This follows the established pattern of modern terrorism (which began in 19th century Europe with well-to-do anarchists). That authoritarian politics plus corruption, and a lack of economic opportunity creates a fertile field for jihadist recruitment in populations with a large "surplus" of unemployed young men, I don't doubt; the young men heading for terrorist training camps in Waziristan probably fit this profile. So yes, changed political and economic conditions in the Arab Islamic world are going to be a necessary part of winning the war against jihadism. But to repeat it again: the jihadists have their own motivations, and if we don't understand that, we won't understand the depth and breadth of the problem.

FTB: Is the problem Islam itself -- the religion (understanding that "Islam" contains "many worlds" as you put it)?

Weigel: That the great majority of the world's Muslims do not accept the jihadists' definition of a faithful Muslim's responsibilities suggests that the jihadist "answer" to the problem of Islam-confronts-modernity is not inevitable. Still, a frank inter-religious dialogue would recognize that certain core themes in Islamic self-understanding -- its supersessionism (i.e., its claim that the revelation to Muhammad effectively cancels the revelatory "value" of the revelations of the God of Abraham to the people of Israel and in Jesus Christ), its concept of a dictated sacred text, its tendency to detach faith and reason (due in part to its lack of a notion of God as "Logos") do, under certain historical, cultural, social, and economic conditions, tend to produce a very aggressive notion of Islam's relationship to "the rest."

FTB: Has Benedict taken a "hard line" with Muslims? How would you describe his approach to the problem of jihadism?

Weigel: The immediate problem, as Pope Benedict XVI has suggested on numerous occasions, lies in Islam's difficult encounter with the Enlightenment political heritage, especially with the idea of religious freedom as a human right than can be known by reason and with the idea of the separation of religious and political authority in a just state. Those are the areas where the dialogue should focus today, for those are the issues that tend to create what Samuel Huntington called "Islam's bloody borders."

FTB: Do you envision a future in which some modernized form of Islam-liberated from the jihadist element-will have accomplished a fruitful "encounter with modernity" (p. 33) and will be able to subsist at peace with the 'rest'?

Weigel: I think you can find places where the effort to broker a more fruitful engagement between Islam and modernity is underway: Indonesia, for example, or Bosnia. One of the great difficulties in all this is the inordinate influence of Wahhabism, the radical Islamist ideology that has been exported from Saudi Arabia throughout the Islamic world. Add the passions of Middle Eastern politics to the effects of Wahhabist radicalism, and you get the kind of problems that we've seen, not only throughout the Levant, central Asia, and southwest Asia; you get the kind of problems we see in France, Great Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, and elsewhere -- like in American prisons.

FTB: Will it take another catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil to provoke a broader understanding of "who the enemy is" and acceptance of the fact that we are at war?

Weigel: I hope not. That's one reason I wrote the book. But there does seem to be an odd, almost Victorian, reticence to name the unpleasant thing that's staring us in the face. If we don't learn to name it -- and if we don't understand that this is fundamentally a war of ideas, ideas about human goods and the human future -- we 're going to be surprised again and again. As for immediate dangers, anyone who doesn't think that al-Qaeda is working 24/7 to pull off, during our current election cycle, something similar to the attack on Madrid prior to the Spanish elections a few years ago simply isn't paying attention.

FTB: What would you respond to critics who would call your book "myopic," an "exaggeration," "neo-con war-mongering hype", and so on?

Weigel: I would invite anyone inclined to think I am exaggerating to read the book. The case is made there with evidence, calmly, and in a spirit that looks toward both a revitalized inter-religious dialogue and a renewal of American culture.

Rev. Thomas V. Berg, L.C., Ph.D. is Executive Director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person.