By Ayaan Hirsi Ali
New York Times, January 6, 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
The Suicide of Reason
Radical Islam’s Threat to the Enlightenment
By Lee Harris
Basic Books, 290 pages
Lee Harris considers the very worst possibility — the destruction
of the West by radical Islam. There is a sense of urgency in his writing, a
desire to shake awake the leaders of the West, to confront them with their
failure to understand that they are engaged in a war with an adversary who
fights by the law of the jungle.
Harris distinguishes between two kinds of fanaticism. The first is Islamic
fanaticism, a formidable enemy in the struggle for cultural survival. In
Harris’s view, this fanaticism has acted as a defense mechanism, shielding Islam
from the pressures of the changing world around it and allowing it to expand.
Harris attempts to make the case that the entry of Islam into another culture
produces changes on every level: “Wherever Islam has spread, there has occurred
a total and revolutionary transformation in the culture of those conquered or
Harris views Islamic imperialism as a single-minded expansion of the religion
itself; the empire that it envisions is governed by Allah. In this sense, the
idea of jihad is less about the inner struggle for peace and justice and more
about a grand mission of conversion.
The expansion of Islam is perhaps more potent than the expansion of the
Christian empires because the concept of separating the sacred from the profane
has never been acceptable in Islam the way it has been in Christianity.
Harris argues that the Muslim world, since it is governed by the law of the
jungle, makes group survival paramount. This explains in part the willingness of
Muslims to become martyrs for the larger community, the umma. According to
Harris, this sense of solidarity is sustainable only with the weapon of
fanaticism, which obligates each member of the umma to convert infidels and to
threaten those who attempt to leave with death.
The second fanaticism Harris calls a fanaticism of reason. Reason blinds Western
leaders to the true nature of Islamic-influenced cultures. Westerners see these
cultures merely as different versions of the world they know, with dominant
values similar to those espoused in their own culture. Harris argues this is a
Liberals and conservatives alike share this misperception. While left and right
may disagree on the causes and the remedies, they both overlook the fanaticism
inherent in Islam itself. Driven by their blind faith in reason, they interpret
the problem in a way that is familiar to them.
Harris argues that fanaticism is the basic principle in Islam. The collective is
emphasized above the individual and his freedoms. A good Muslim must forsake
all: his property, family, children, even life for the sake of Islam. Boys are
taught to be dominating and merciless, which has the effect of creating a
society of holy warriors.
By contrast, the West has cultivated an ethos of individualism, reason and
tolerance, in which every actor, from the individual to the nation-state, seeks
to resolve conflict through words. The entire system is built on the idea of
self-interest. This ethos rejects fanaticism.
The West has variously tried to convert, to assimilate and to seduce Muslims
into modernity. Harris says none of these approaches have succeeded. But his
arguments are not entirely sound. His use of the term “reason” is faulty.
Enlightenment thinkers argued that human reason is fallible. They understood
that reason is a process of trial and error, the ability to learn from past
mistakes. The Enlightenment cannot be fully appreciated without a strong
awareness of just how frail human reason is.
Harris takes a Darwinian view of the struggle between clashing cultures,
criticizing the West for an ethos of selfishness, and he follows Hegel in
asserting that where the interest of the individual collides with that of the
state, it is the state that should prevail. This is why he attributes such
strength to Islamic fanaticism. Each Muslim is a slave, first of God, then of
Harris extols American exceptionalism together with Hegel as if there were no
contradiction between the two. But what makes America unique, especially in
contrast to Europe, is its resistance to the philosophy of Hegel with its
concept of a unifying world spirit. It is the individual that matters most in
the United States. And it is individuals who make cultures and who break them.
I was raised with the code of Islam, and from birth I was indoctrinated into a
tribal mind-set. Yet I have adopted the values of the Enlightenment. And I am
not alone. Muslims have been migrating to the West in droves for decades now.
They are in search of a better life. Yet their tribal and cultural constraints
have traveled with them. And the multiculturalism and moral relativism that
reign in the West have accommodated this.
Harris is correct that many Western leaders are woefully uninformed and often
unwilling to confront the tribal nature of Islam. The problem, however, is not
too much reason but too little. Harris also fails to address the enemies of
reason within the West: religion and the Romantic movement. It is out of
rejection of religion that the Enlightenment emerged; Romanticism was a revolt
Both the Romantic movement and organized religion share a hostility to
modernity. Moral and cultural relativism are the hallmarks of the Romantics. To
argue that reason is the mother of the current mess the West is in is to miss
the major impact this movement has had, first in the West and perhaps even more
profoundly outside the West, particularly in Muslim lands.
It is not reason that accommodates and encourages the persistent segregation and
tribalism of immigrant Muslim populations in the West. It is Romanticism. My
reasons for reproaching today’s Western leaders are that I see them squandering
a great opportunity to compete with the agents of radical Islam for the minds of
Muslims. But to do so, they must allow reason to prevail over sentiment.
To argue that children born and bred in superstitious cultures that value
fanaticism and create phalanxes governed by the law of the jungle is to ignore
the lessons of the West’s own past. Many of the Westerners who were born into
the law of the jungle have since become acquainted with the culture of reason
and have adopted it. They are even willing to die for it.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in
Washington and author of
By Lee Harris
Hoover Institution, Oct-Nov 2006
Edited by Andy Ross
The Legacy of Jihad
Prometheus Books, 759 pages
This book is written with a profound sense of urgency. Bostom, a
professor of medicine at Brown who became a passionately committed scholar of
Islam after 9/11, expresses the wish that his own children and their children
may “thrive in a world where the devastating institution of jihad has been
acknowledged, renounced, dismantled, and relegated forever to the dustbin of
history by Muslims themselves.”
In our current climate of political correctness, there has been a reluctance
even to acknowledge the most obvious facts about the nature of jihad. Just as
there are Holocaust deniers, there is a tendency to deny the evidence relating
to jihad. The jihad-deniers dispute that there is anything distinctive and
peculiar about the Islamic concept of jihad.
Some have argued, for example, that the true meaning of jihad is the struggle
within the soul of each Muslim to overcome his own failings and sins. On this
view, jihad is a war declared by a Muslim upon himself and not upon infidels. It
is a personal campaign akin to the classic and agonizing struggle of the
Protestant with his own conscience.
Those who follow a religion are free to adapt its historical traditions.
Modernizing revisions of traditional religious concepts can be useful in weaning
the followers of a religion away from the primitive ethos out of which many
ancient religions arose. For those who wish to see Muslims repudiate the
classical tradition of jihad, it may be beneficial to encourage the illusion
that jihad has always meant an internal struggle against sin or a fight for a
Bostom devotes a hundred pages of his book to an anthology of various Muslim
commentators. He demonstrates beyond doubt that the historical institution of
jihad did not mean a personal and individual struggle against evil or the
nonviolent pursuit of a just cause, but rather a violent struggle by the entire
Muslim community against those outsiders who were not Muslims.
By European standards, a just war is a war of self-defense or a war fought to
preserve a stable balance of power. The concept is dependent on the acceptance
of the legitimacy of a pre-existing status quo. What is unjust is any
disturbance of this status quo, what is just is the attempt to restore it.
Bostom’s book dispels the notion that jihad is a just war in this sense. Islamic
jihad, from its commencement, refused to recognize the legitimacy of any status
quo other than that achieved in Dar el-Islam, or the domain of peace. Outside
the domain of peace there was only the domain of war, and here no entity could
hope to be treated as representing a legitimate order, for no order that was not
based on Islamic law could ever be recognized as legitimate in the eyes of
The concept of jihad does not fit the clash-of-civilizations paradigm that is so
often used to describe the current world situation. In this model, no nation
will embark on a course not merely of conquering another nation, but of
transforming its culture into a replica of its own. Yet it is precisely the goal
of jihad to destroy the status quo of those outside the ambit of Islam in order
to expand its realm.
What is most striking about the collective project of jihad has been its immense
success. Once Islamic culture sank in, it became virtually impossible for any
foreign cultural influence to make any headway against it. Bostom devotes a
large segment of his book to accounts of various historical jihads and provides
overwhelming evidence of the fanaticism, brutality, and ruthlessness of the
Muslim holy warriors.
Hitler’s wars of conquest provide another example of the failure of the
clash-of-civilizations paradigm. Hitler was not interested in the balance of
power or in preserving the status quo. His aim was to destroy both and to
replace the old system with a New World Order. But in the case of jihad, there
was always an alternative to subjugation and extermination — you could convert
If a conqueror gives the conquered people a choice between becoming one of his
kind on the one hand and being subjugated or liquidated on the other, he will
gain an enormous advantage over those conquerors who do not offer such a choice.
If those who choose to convert are looked upon as members of the community of
the faithful and no longer as infidels, then there will be a powerful incentive
Another ingenious feature to jihad is the policy of offering special treatment
to those whom Mohammed dubbed Peoples of the Book. While normal pagans were
given the choice to convert or die, Jews and Christians were offered the choice
between conversion to Islam and the acceptance of an inferior status within the
community of Muslim believers, in which every aspect of public life was under
the control of Islam.
The evidence Bostom provides demonstrates that jihad was a devastatingly
effective institution. It succeeded in transforming whatever cultural traditions
fell before it. Why would Muslims want to abandon jihad so long as it continues
to work for them?
The revival of jihad is the essence of radical Islam, and this revival indicates
that those who follow the path of radical Islam are by no means ready to
dismantle their unique institution. On the contrary, it would appear that they
are vigorously working to adjust it to the circumstances of Western modernity.
The spirit of jihad first emerged out of the plundering raids of Arab camel
nomads who took whatever they wanted from those who were weaker. Under Omar a
new project began. From that point on, the warlike bands lived off the labor of
the peasants who had been the support of all the various empires that had
emerged in the Levant. Yet the secret of the success of the Arab bands lay less
in their own warlike qualities than in the weakness and decadence of the empires
For the Arab philosopher of history Ibn Khaldun, when a civilization becomes too
sedentary, it becomes ripe for conquest by those who are still warlike and
driven by a fanatical sense of mission. Superior wealth and superior
civilization were no guarantee that those who possessed them could hold on to
them in the face of small but determined bands of fanatics united by a sense of
what he called group feeling.
If jihad were being used simply as a means of conducting Clausewitzian warfare,
it would be a relic of the past. If Muslim civilization only decided to clash
with ours, we could clash back, and with overwhelming military force. But the
jihadists are not interested in winning in our sense of the word. They can
succeed simply by making the present world order unworkable.
Consider the fall of the Weimar Republic. The Nazis elected to follow a policy
designed to make the Weimar system incapable of governing through normal
political channels. Before long a situation would be created in which liberal
politics was no longer an option and the people, in desperation, would seek an
alternative to the clogged and deadlocked machinery of the parliamentary system.
For the Nazis, the politics of nihilism made perfect sense. Hating the system
itself, they had no qualms about destroying it.
It is tempting to call this approach the crash of civilization. Those who take
it want to destroy the status quo, and there is nothing those who represent and
benefit from the status quo can do to bribe them or tempt them or seduce them
away from pursuing their goal. Hitler refused to be paid off with anything less
than appointment as chancellor of Germany.
It does not take a modern, sophisticated army to bring down a fragile and
delicately balanced political order. The German army could easily have crushed
the Nazi movement if it had been a question merely of brute force. But those who
controlled the army did not want to risk the perilous descent into chaos that
such a move would inevitably have entailed. Those who wished to overthrow the
status quo were hoping for precisely such a descent into chaos.
The chief strength of any established order is order. It is always in the
interest of the established order to avoid risking disorder. In the
crash-of-civilization paradigm, the enemy of a particular established order
needs only to make the established order reluctant to act out of fear. This fear
of anarchy can be used to paralyze the political process.
On the clash-of-civilization model, the revival of jihad would not be
threatening, but on the crash-of-civilization model things look quite different.
The jihadists do not need to win a battle against the West. It is enough if they
can force the West to choose between a dreaded plunge back into the law of the
jungle and submission.
By Lee Harris
Hoover Institution, Aug-Sept 2002
Edited by Andy Ross
On September 11, 2001, Americans were confronted by an enigma so
baffling that even nomenclature posed a problem. Was it a disaster, a criminal
act, an act of war? Words failed, and all that was left behind was the bleak set
of numbers, 9-11.
The common identification of 9-11 as an act of war arises from a deeper
unquestioned assumption: An act of violence on the magnitude of 9-11 can only
have been intended to further some kind of political objective. Surely people do
not commit such acts unless they are trying to achieve some kind of recognizably
Clausewitz defined war as politics carried out by other means. The whole point
of war, on this reading, is to get other people to do what we want them to do.
But is this the right model for understanding 9-11? In what follows, I would
like to pursue a line suggested by a remark by the composer Karlheinz
Stockhausen in reference to 9-11: his much-quoted comment that it was "the
greatest work of art of all time."
Stockhausen grasped a big truth: 9-11 was the enactment of a fantasy.
To an outside observer, the fantasist is clearly attempting to compensate by
means of his fantasy for the shortcomings of his own present reality. But the
fantasist often exercises great and terrible power precisely by virtue of his
This power of the fantasist is entirely traceable to the fact that, for him, the
other is always an object and never a subject. A subject, after all, has a will
of his own. And anyone who is aware of this fact is automatically put at the
disadvantage of knowing that other people have minds of their own and are not
merely props to be pushed around.
Fortunately, the fantasizing individual is normally surrounded by other
individuals who are not fantasizing or at least who are not fantasizing in the
same way, and this fact puts a limit on how far most of us allow our fantasy
world to intrude on reality.
But what happens when it is not an individual but an entire group — a sect, or a
people, or even a nation? There is no doubt that for most of history such
large-scale collective fantasies appear on the world stage under the guise of
The theme of reviving ancient glory is an important key to understanding fantasy
ideologies, for it suggests that fantasy ideologies tend to be the domain of
those groups that feel that they are under attack from forces which, while more
powerful perhaps than they are, are nonetheless inferior in terms of true
For us, belief is a purely passive response to evidence presented to us — I form
my beliefs about the world for the purpose of understanding the world as it is.
But this is radically different from what might be called transformative belief
— the secret of fantasy ideology. For here the belief is not passive, but
intensely active, and its purpose is not to describe the world, but to change
The terror attack of 9-11 was not designed to make us alter our policy, but was
crafted as a spectacular piece of theater. The targets were chosen by al Qaeda
not through military calculation — in contrast, for example, to the Japanese
attack on Pearl Harbor — but entirely because they stood as symbols of American
power universally recognized by the Arab street.
The purpose of 9-11 was not to create terror in the minds of the American people
but to prove to the Arabs that Islamic purity, as interpreted by radical Islam,
could triumph. The terror is a by-product. Likewise, what al Qaeda and its
followers see as central to the holy pageant of 9-11 — namely, the heroic
martyrdom of the 19 hijackers — is interpreted by us as incidental to a larger
strategic purpose, Clausewitzian war carried out in this case by suicide.
But in the fantasy ideology of radical Islam, suicide is not a means to an end
but an end in itself. Seen through the distorting prism of radical Islam, the
act of suicide is transformed into that of martyrdom — martyrdom in all its
transcendent glory and accompanied by the panoply of magical powers that
religious tradition has always assigned to martyrdom.
Acts of terror can be used to pursue genuine Clausewitzian objectives in
precisely the same way that normal military operations are used, as was
demonstrated during the Algerian war of independence. But this requires that the
acts of terror be deployed with the same kind of strategic logic that applies to
normal military operations. If you attack your enemy with an act of terror, you
must be prepared to follow up on it immediately.
The symbolic drama enacted by al Qaeda on 9-11 was a great ritual demonstrating
the power of Allah, a pageant designed to convey a message not to the American
people, but to the Arab world. A campaign of smaller-scale acts of terror would
have no glamour in it, and it was glamour — and grandiosity — that al Qaeda was
seeking in its targets.
If this interpretation is correct, then it is time that we reconsider some of
our basic policy in the war on terror. First, if our enemy is motivated purely
by a fantasy ideology, it is absurd for us to look for the root causes of
terrorism in poverty, lack of education, a lack of democracy, etc. Such factors
play no role in the creation of a fantasy ideology.
Equally absurd is the notion that we must review our own policies toward the
Middle East in order to find ways to make our enemies hate us less. There is no
political policy we could take that would change the attitude of our enemies —
short, perhaps, of a massive nationwide conversion to fundamentalist Islam.
Second, we need to reconsider the term "war" as it is currently deployed in this
case. In the case of the war begun at Pearl Harbor, all the parties knew exactly
what was at issue, and there was no need for media experts to argue over the
"real" objective behind the attack. This was not remotely the case in the
aftermath of 9-11. The issue facing the U.S. was not whether to accept or to
reject al Qaeda's political demands.
We are fighting an enemy who has no strategic purpose — whose actions have
significance only in terms of his own fantasy ideology. If they were at war with
us, they would be compelled to start thinking realistically, in terms of
objective factors such as overall strategic goals, war aims, and so forth. But
because they are operating in terms of their fantasy ideology, such a realistic
assessment is impossible for them. It matters not how much stronger or more
powerful we are than they — what matters is that God will bring them victory.
The fantasy ideology of radical Islam is a form of magical thinking. Our "real"
world is utterly secular, a concatenation of an endless series of cause and
effect. But the "real" world of radical Islam is different — its fantasy
ideology reflects the same philosophical occasionalism that pervades so much of
Islamic theology. Event B does not happen because it is caused by a previous
event A. Instead, event A is simply the occasion for God to cause event B, so
that the genuine cause of all events is God. If God is willing, the United
States and the West could collapse at any moment.
This element of magical thinking does not make al Qaeda any less dangerous. For
it is likely that in al Qaeda's collective fantasy there may exist the notion of
an ultimate terror act, a magic bullet capable of bringing down the United
States at a single stroke — for example the detonation of a very unmagical
In the initial aftermath of 9-11, President Bush continually spoke of al Qaeda
not as terrorists, but as "evildoers" — a term for which he was widely derided
by those who found it offensively simple-minded and childish. Evildoers, after
all, are characters out of fairy tales, not real life.
Bush's critics were right in observing the fairy-tale provenance of the phrase
"evildoer" but wrong in denouncing Bush's use of it. For, whether by instinct or
by cunning, Bush struck exactly the right note. Bush instinctively saw 9-11 as
the acting out of demented fantasy. When confronted with the enigma of 9-11 he
was able to avoid the temptation of trying to interpret it in terms of our own
familiar categories and traditions.
Combat with evildoers is not Clausewitzian war. You do not make treaties with
evildoers or try to adjust your conduct to make them like you. You do not try to
see the world from the evildoers' point of view. You do not try to appease them,
or persuade them, or reason with them. You behave with them as you would deal
with a fatal epidemic — you try to wipe it out.
lives in Stone Mountain, Georgia. After years spent pursuing diverse interests,
including a stint at divinity school, several years writing mystery novels and a
career as a glazier, he began writing philosophical articles that captured the
imagination of readers all over the world.