The Darkness of the Shade

Stop what you are doing right now and read this amazing essay by Paul Berman on Sayyid Qutb, the philosopher of Islamism, whose works have gone, to our great detriment, neglected and unanswered. Berman’s immensely informative piece makes perfectly clear what I have suspected all along: the war against Islamic terrorism is a war of ideas.

Berman writes:

Al Qaeda and its sister organizations are not merely popular, wealthy, global, well connected and institutionally sophisticated. These groups stand on a set of ideas too, and some of those ideas may be pathological, which is an old story in modern politics; yet even so, the ideas are powerful. We should have known that, of course. But we should have known many things.

Berman lucidly lays out Qutb’s philosophy, which is deep, deeply wrong, and thus deeply dangerous. Qutb, it appears, identifies the Christian sundering of mind and body (corresponding to the libeal west’s division of the religious/spiritual from the secular/scientific) as a main source of modern pathology and anxiety, and proposes that only Islam, and life strictly lived according to the Sharia can make us once again whole, and free. So for freedom’s sake, then, the Islamic law must be the state’s law, and enforced unflinchingly.

We intellectuals have work to do. Judging from Berman’s remarkable account, Qutb’s philosophy is both profound and inspiring. If freedom is to survive–as we understand and cherish it–these ideas must be engaged, and put down. And that requires that we speak to the same needs Qutb speaks to. His followers are ready to murder and die for freedom–as they have come to understand and cherish it. The Enlightenment must put up, or be shut up. This is why philosophy matters. This is why the evaluative paralysis of post-modern nihilism isn’t just self-indulgent stupidity, but a potentially deadly suppression of our civilization’s intellectual immune system.

So, really, we’ve got to fight. But this is not a war that can be won with espionage, JDAMs, and airrcraft carriers. Berman’s concludes:

It would be nice to think that, in the war against terror, our side, too, speaks of deep philosophical ideas — it would be nice to think that someone is arguing with the terrorists and with the readers of Sayyid Qutb. But here I have my worries. The followers of Qutb speak, in their wild fashion, of enormous human problems, and they urge one another to death and to murder. But the enemies of these people speak of what? The political leaders speak of United Nations resolutions, of unilateralism, of multilateralism, of weapons inspectors, of coercion and noncoercion. This is no answer to the terrorists. The terrorists speak insanely of deep things. The antiterrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things. Presidents will not do this. Presidents will dispatch armies, or decline to dispatch armies, for better and for worse.

But who will speak of the sacred and the secular, of the physical world and the spiritual world? Who will defend liberal ideas against the enemies of liberal ideas? Who will defend liberal principles in spite of liberal society’s every failure? President George W. Bush, in his speech to Congress a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, announced that he was going to wage a war of ideas. He has done no such thing. He is not the man for that.

Philosophers and religious leaders will have to do this on their own. Are they doing so? Armies are in motion, but are the philosophers and religious leaders, the liberal thinkers, likewise in motion? There is something to worry about here, an aspect of the war that liberal society seems to have trouble understanding — one more worry, on top of all the others, and possibly the greatest worry of all.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center