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Books and Culture

Christopher D. Geisel
Yes, It Is About Religion
George Weigel rejects secularized analysis of the War on Terror.
30 January 2008

Selected Responses:

Sent by SDB on 01-31-2008:

Excellent points about the idea of God-given rights in a democracy, and about reform from within Islam instead of secularization. Modern jihad is based on a conflation of ideas from secular fascism and communism with Islam, and that certainly hasn't helped anyone.

But I don't believe all the War on Terror rhetoric. For example: Ahmadinajad wants to end the world with nuclear weapons? I heard similar things from liberals about George W. Bush's and other evangelicals' faith -- that they welcomed Armageddon and the Rapture and were completely crazy. It's a smear and a scare tactic used against political rivals, in this case, the U.S. against Iran.

Amhadinajad does not even hold real power in his government. His bluster is for media consumption while the ultra-realist mullahs that run the government have never started a war with any other country and entreat the U.S. to renormalize diplomatic relations.

I'd also like to hear someone justify the ludicrous theory that an Islamic country would give a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group. How could any serious government give that amount of power to a crew of amateur criminals and trust they wouldn't sell the weapon or even detonate it domestically? And how could that government ever hope to hide where the weapon had come from in the first place and avoid violent retribution in the same way the U.S. deposed the Taliban?

Christopher Geisel responds:

Thank you for your feedback. In response to your comments about Iran, I note that George Weigel believes that President Ahmadinejad's threats and behavior cannot just be dismissed as rhetoric, as they are indicative of a distinctively Shiite version of jihadism that believes in the goal of ushering in the return of the Twelfth Imam and the messianic age. He distinguishes this jihadist apocalyptic view from that of typical Christian fundamentalism--for instance, the difference being that the jihadists actually believe it is their responsibility to hasten the end of the world.

Martyrdom is intrinsic to radical Islamism. I think of the Iranian recruits who, with promises of paradise, stormed across minefields by the thousands in the human-wave attacks of the Iran-Iraq War. An enemy who is committed to martyrdom as an end in itself cannot be considered a rational actor on the world stage. Nuclear deterrence worked against the Soviet Union because the communist vision of the world, though dark, was not suicidal. A deterrence and containment strategy would only be perceived as weakness by the radical Islamists.

Weigel also compares the current rhetoric by Ahmadinejad to the writings of Hitler before World War II. During the 1930s, many dismissed the threats coming out of Nazi Germany as bluster as well, even as it grew in military strength and aggressiveness. When the Iranian president threatens Israel and the U.S., when Iran is actively sponsoring terrorism in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and when it is currently enriching uranium, shouldn't we at some point take the Iranian threat seriously?

On the issue of whether an Islamic country would ever give a nuclear weapon to a terrorist, we should keep in mind that nuclear-armed Pakistan has a significant portion of its military and intelligence services infiltrated with pro-Taliban, pro-Al Qaeda elements. If these nuclear weapons (or even just the radioactive material) fell into the hands of terrorists, it would not necessarily be because of a decision by President Musharraf. A nuclear Iran who generally embraces extremists might pose similar risks of proliferation, regardless of the cautious self-interest of its mullahs.

The point of all of this, in my opinion, is that we face a global threat against a militant ideological enemy who seeks to destroy free societies, who is organized with state sponsorship, and who is actively seeking weapons of mass destruction. This enemy must be confronted head-on. I think the long-term solution is to encourage the spread of liberal democracy, which is the great antidote to radical ideology. In the meantime, we should use diplomatic, economic, and--as a last resort--military action to stop rogue regimes from further acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

Thanks again for your interest.

Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action, by George Weigel (Doubleday, 208 pp., $18.95)

I recently attended a briefing by a U.S. Air Force colonel who declared that the current terrorist threat had “nothing to do with Islam.” Such well-intentioned statements appeal to political correctness at the expense of meaningful understanding. It is true that the War on Terror is not a religious war between Islam and any other religion; it is also true that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not terrorists. However, the global war against the extremists who attacked America on September 11 has a theological dimension that we must acknowledge.

In Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action, Catholic theologian George Weigel presents the War on Terror as an existential and generational conflict between the free world and radical Islamists—representatives of “jihadism,” a militant branch of Islamism that seeks “nothing less than a global Islamic state.” Weigel rejects the claims that jihadism is the result of American foreign policy, Third World poverty, or actions taken by the state of Israel. Instead, he identifies the historical and theological roots of jihadism in the early Muslim world, providing a brief summary of Islamic history from the early days of Muslim expansion and the development of political Islam through the birth of Wahhabism and the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood right up to Osama bin Laden’s “global jihad.”

Weigel sharply criticizes professionals in government, the media, and the academy who trace modern notions of democratic freedom to secular influences, and who therefore believe that the solution to Islamist extremism must be the secularization of Muslim societies. He argues that pushing secularism actually hurts the case for the kinds of self-critique and reform that are necessary throughout the Islamic world. Muslims should make an Islamic case against the extremism of the jihadists, as well as against the despotic regimes that enable such radical ideology to fester.

Echoing a 2006 address by Pope Benedict XVI, Weigel sees the challenge facing today’s Islamic world as “finding a way to come to grips with the intellectual and institutional achievements of the Enlightenment,” in particular the ideals of religious freedom and inalienable rights. Contrary to those who argue that the Islamic world must experience a Lutheran-like Reformation, Weigel concludes that what is really required is a reformer like the late-nineteenth-century pope Leo XIII, who “reaches back into the deeper philosophical resources of his tradition in order to broker a critical engagement with Enlightenment political thought.” While the doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church were originally incompatible with modern liberal democracy, the Enlightenment ideal of universal human rights—seen as a gift from God and not a dispensation of government—is deeply rooted in the Western Judeo-Christian tradition. Further, the concepts of limited government and separation between church and state can be found in the New Testament, Weigel notes.

Islamic reformers should similarly be able to achieve what Weigel describes as “retrieval and development, as distinct from rupture and revolution.” After all, Islamic tradition, too, contains older elements that can foster compatibility with consensual government and religious freedom. While militant jihadism has theological roots, Islam as a whole was once notably nonauthoritarian, avoiding excessive concentration of power in the hands of state rulers. According to Weigel, who cites various works by historian Bernard Lewis, before authoritarian “modernization” came to the Arab Islamic world in the nineteenth century and before the totalitarian ideas of fascism and communism influenced Islamic despots of the twentieth century, there existed a genuine Muslim tradition of limited government, in which economic, military, and religious leaders “arose from within the groups themselves, and no wise ruler could afford to make major decisions without consulting them.” Thus the great irony, beautifully presented by Weigel, is that the jihadists—whom some call fundamentalists—reject not only liberal democratic modernity but also the traditional roots of Islamic society.

Weigel proposes a host of measures to take against the jihadist threat, ranging from reforming airport security procedures to developing petroleum-free energy sources for transportation that would “dramatically defund jihadism.” Most notable is his call for a bipartisan coalition of U.S. leaders similar to the one formed by Democratic president Harry Truman and Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg at the beginning of the Cold War to contain Communism. To confront the secularist mindset that prevails throughout the U.S. foreign policy establishment, Weigel pleads for ambassadors who can explain U.S. policy against global jihadism and Foreign Service officers who are educated in the role that religion has played in shaping democratic societies.

When faced with the Cold War’s existential threat over half a century ago, America also developed a comprehensive strategy to contain and counter communist expansion, outlined in the National Security Council report known as NSC-68. Weigel calls for an equivalent policy document to deal with jihadism, while cautioning that the threat of mutually assured destruction that worked as a deterrent against the Soviet Union will be unavailing against an enemy bent on martyrdom. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Shiite variant of jihadism, for instance, seeks not to restore an ancient caliphate as does the Sunni brand, but instead to hasten a coming apocalypse, perhaps through the use of nuclear weapons. Weigel concludes that a nuclear-armed Iran would not be intimidated by the prospect of Western nuclear retaliation. In fact, such a threat could be “an inducement rather than a deterrent.”

Perhaps most controversial is Weigel’s proposal for the U.S. to “declare that its settled policy is the pursuit, over time and with careful monitoring, of the abolition of nuclear weapons throughout the world.” His argument rests on two premises: first, that traditional nuclear deterrence will be impossible against jihadism, and second, that declaring a policy of total disarmament would strengthen American credibility in seeking to deny nuclear weapons to states like Iran. Yet Weigel seems to ignore the reasoned moral case for nuclear weapons as the ultimate means of defense against threats to a democratic nation’s survival, especially considering that the West may need to defeat or deter many nonjihadist enemies of freedom in the future.

Finally, one of Weigel’s criticisms of the U.S. National Security Strategy appears to be partly outdated. He notes correctly that the doctrine of preemption described in NSS-2002 and the goal of advancing world freedom espoused in President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address were explicitly linked neither to each other nor to the threat of Islamist terrorism. However, the new NSS-2006 does describe in some detail the specific threat posed by “militant Islamic radicalism” and terrorists who “distort the idea of jihad into a call for murder.” The document also explains why democracy—“the opposite of terrorist tyranny”—can counter the threat. So perhaps slow progress is already being made in realizing the true nature of militant jihadism.

Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism makes clear that we must not ignore the religious dimension of the radical Islamists’ war on modern civilization. It arms the reader with an understanding of the theological aspects of this conflict that require urgent consideration in our policy and strategy debates. Because our next generation of leaders must be intellectually equipped to confront the jihadist threat to free societies, Weigel’s book should be on the reading list at our universities and service academies, at our embassies and military bases, and anywhere else such lessons are necessary—even if not always welcomed.

Christopher D. Geisel is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He serves on active duty in the U.S. Air Force. The opinions expressed here are his alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government, including the Department of Defense and the Air Force.

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