City Journal

Roger Scruton
Forgiveness and Irony
What makes the West strong
Winter 2009

Selected Responses:

Sent by Thomas L. Moore on 02-02-2009:

Reading your insightful article brings to mind Tolstoy's famous question: "How, then, shall we live?" Unfortunately, for all too many disaffected Muslims, the question has become: "How, then, shall we die"? There is a sad irony in this type of thinking. I do not believe it is a necessary consequence of, or expected development from, medieval Muslim culture. From my understanding of Islam, it is not a form of religious entropy, predetermining the individual to dissolution. That the culture of death has now taken such a strong hold on the minds of so many Muslims still requires a comprehensive explanation.

Forgiveness: Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son (c. 1668-69)
Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia/The Bridgeman Art Library
Forgiveness: Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son (c. 1668–69)

Wherever the Western vision of political order has gained a foothold, we find freedom of expression: not merely the freedom to disagree with others publicly about matters of faith and morality but also the freedom to satirize solemnity and to ridicule nonsense, including solemnity and nonsense of the sacred kind. This freedom of conscience requires secular government. But what makes secular government legitimate?

That question is the starting point of Western political philosophy, the consensus among modern thinkers being that sovereignty and law are made legitimate by the consent of those who must obey them. They show this consent in two ways: by a real or implied “social contract,” whereby each person agrees with every other to the principles of government; and by a political process through which each person participates in the making and enacting of the law. The right and duty of participation is what we mean, or ought to mean, by “citizenship,” and the distinction between political and religious communities can be summed up in the view that political communities are composed of citizens and religious communities of subjects—of those who have “submitted.” If we want a simple definition of the West as it is today, the concept of citizenship is a good starting point. That is what millions of migrants are roaming the world in search of: an order that confers security and freedom in exchange for consent.

That is what people want; it does not, however, make them happy. Something is missing from a life based purely on consent and polite accommodation with your neighbors—something of which Muslims retain a powerful image through the words of the Koran. This missing thing goes by many names: sense, meaning, purpose, faith, brotherhood, submission. People need freedom; but they also need the goal for which they can renounce it. That is the thought contained in the word “Islam”: the willing submission, from which there is no return.

It goes without saying that the word’s connotations are different for Arabic speakers and for speakers of Turkish, Malay, or Bengali. Turks, who live under a secular law derived from the legal systems of post-Napoleonic Europe, are seldom disposed to think that, as Muslims, they must live in a state of continual submission to a divine law that governs all of social and political life. The 20 percent of Muslims who are Arabs, however, feel the mesmerizing rhythms of the Koran as an unbrookable current of compulsion and are apt to take “Islam” literally. For them, this particular act of submission may mean renouncing not only freedom but also the very idea of citizenship. It may involve retreating from the open dialogue on which the secular order depends into the “shade of the Koran,” as Sayyid Qutb put it, in a disturbing book that has inspired the Muslim Brotherhood ever since. Citizenship is precisely not a form of brotherhood, of the kind that follows from a shared act of heartfelt submission: it is a relation among strangers, a collective apartness, in which fulfillment and meaning are confined to the private sphere. To have created this form of renewable loneliness is the great achievement of Western civilization, and my way of describing it raises the question of whether it is worth defending and, if so, how.

My answer is yes, it is worth defending, but only if we recognize the truth that the present conflict with Islamism makes vivid to us: citizenship is not enough, and it will endure only if associated with meanings to which the rising generation can attach its hopes and its search for identity. There is no doubt that the secular order and the search for meaning coexisted quite happily when Christianity provided its benign support to both. But (especially in Europe) Christianity has retreated from public life and is now being driven from private life as well. For people of my generation, it seemed, for a while, as though we could rediscover meaning through culture. The artistic, musical, literary, and philosophical traditions of our civilization bore so many traces of a world-transforming significance that it would be enough—we thought—to pass those things on. Each new generation could then inherit by means of them the spiritual resources that it needed. But we reckoned without two all-important facts: first, the second law of thermodynamics, which tells us that without an injection of energy, all order decays; and second, the rise of what I call the “culture of repudiation,” as those appointed to inject that energy have become increasingly fatigued with the task and have eventually jettisoned the cultural baggage under whose weight they staggered.

This culture of repudiation has transmitted itself, through the media and the schools, across the spiritual terrain of Western civilization, leaving behind it a sense of emptiness and defeat, a sense that nothing is left to believe in or endorse, save only the freedom to believe. And a belief in the freedom to believe is neither a belief nor a freedom. It encourages hesitation in the place of conviction and timidity in the place of choice. It is hardly surprising that so many Muslims in our cities today regard the civilization surrounding them as doomed, even if it is a civilization that has granted them something that they may be unable to find where their own religion triumphs, which is a free, tolerant, and secular rule of law. For they were brought up in a world of certainties; around them, they encounter only doubts.

If repudiation of its past and its identity is all that Western civilization can offer, it cannot survive: it will give way to whatever future civilization can offer hope and consolation to the young and fulfill their deep-rooted human need for social membership. Citizenship, as I have described it, does not fulfill that need: and that is why so many Muslims reject it, seeking instead that consoling “brotherhood” (ikhwan) that has so often been the goal of Islamic revivals. But citizenship is an achievement that we cannot forgo if the modern world is to survive: we have built our prosperity on it, our peace and our stability, and—even if it does not provide happiness—it defines us. We cannot renounce it without ceasing to be.

What is needed is not to reject citizenship as the foundation of social order but to provide it with a heart. And in seeking that heart, we should turn away from the apologetic multiculturalism that has had such a ruinous effect on Western self-confidence and return to the gifts that we have received from our Judeo-Christian tradition.

The first of these gifts is forgiveness. By living in a spirit of forgiveness, we not only uphold the core value of citizenship but also find the path to social membership that we need. Happiness does not come from the pursuit of pleasure, nor is it guaranteed by freedom. It comes from sacrifice: that is the great message that all the memorable works of our culture convey. The message has been lost in the noise of repudiation, but we can hear it once again if we devote our energies to retrieving it. And in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the primary act of sacrifice is forgiveness. The one who forgives sacrifices resentment and thereby renounces something that had been dear to his heart.

The Koran invokes at every point the mercy, compassion, and justice of God. But the God of the Koran is not a lenient God. In His Koranic manifestation, God forgives sparingly and with obvious reluctance. He is manifestly not amused by human folly and weakness—nor, indeed, is He amused by anything. The Koran, unlike the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, is a joke-free zone.

This brings us to another of our civilization’s gifts to us: irony. There is already a developing streak of irony in the Hebrew Bible, one that the Talmud amplifies. But a new kind of irony dominates Christ’s judgments and parables, which look on the spectacle of human folly and wryly show us how to live with it. A telling example is Christ’s verdict in the case of the woman taken in adultery: “Let he who is without fault cast the first stone.” In other words: “Come off it; haven’t you wanted to do what she did, and already done it in your hearts?” Some have suggested that this story is a later insertion—one of many that the early Christians culled from the store of inherited wisdom attributed to the Redeemer after his death. Even if that is true, however, it merely confirms the view that the Christian religion has made irony central to its message. It was a troubled, post-Enlightenment Christian, Søren Kierkegaard, who pointed to irony as the virtue that united Socrates and Christ.

The late Richard Rorty saw irony as a state of mind intimately connected with the postmodern worldview—a withdrawal from judgment that nevertheless aims at a kind of consensus, a shared agreement not to judge. The ironic temperament, however, is better understood as a virtue—a disposition aimed at a kind of practical fulfillment and moral success. Venturing a definition of this virtue, I would describe it as a habit of acknowledging the otherness of everything, including oneself. However convinced you are of the rightness of your actions and the truth of your views, look on them as the actions and the views of someone else and rephrase them accordingly. So defined, irony is quite distinct from sarcasm: it is a mode of acceptance rather than a mode of rejection. It also points both ways: through irony, I learn to accept both the other on whom I turn my gaze, and also myself, the one who is gazing. Pace Rorty, irony is not free from judgment: it simply recognizes that the one who judges is also judged, and judged by himself.

The West’s democratic inheritance stems, I would argue, from the habit of forgiveness. To forgive the other is to grant him, in your heart, the freedom to be. It is therefore to acknowledge the individual as sovereign over his life and free to do both right and wrong. A society that makes permanent room for forgiveness therefore tends automatically in a democratic direction, since it is a society in which the voice of the other is heard in all decisions that affect him. Irony—the recognition and acceptance of otherness—amplifies this democratic tendency and also helps thwart the mediocrity and conformity that are the downsides of a democratic culture.

Forgiveness and irony lie at the heart of our civilization. They are what we have to be most proud of, and our principal means to disarm our enemies. They underlie our conception of citizenship as founded in consent. And they are expressed in our conception of law as a means to resolve conflicts by discovering the just solution to them. It is not often realized that this conception of law has little in common with Muslim sharia, which is regarded as a system of commands issued by God and not capable of, or in need of, further justification.

God’s commandments are important to Christians and Jews, too; but they are not seen as sufficient for the good government of human societies. They must be supplemented by another kind of law, responsive to the changing forms of human conflict. The parable of the tribute money makes this transparently clear (“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”), as does the papal doctrine of the two swords—the two forms of law, human and divine, on which good government depends. The law enforced by our courts requires the parties to “submit” only to the secular jurisdiction. It treats each party as a responsible individual, acting freely for himself. This feature of law is particularly vivid in the minds of the English-speaking peoples, whose system of common law consists of freedoms—won by the citizen from the state—that the state must uphold. Sharia consists of obligations imposed by God that the courts must enforce. It is a means to ensure “submission” to the will of God, as revealed in the Koran and the Sunna.

How do these thoughts bear on our current situation? In particular, how does this invocation of deep aspects of our Judeo-Christian heritage help us respond to the threat posed by Islamist terrorism, and how can we achieve the much-needed reconciliation with Islam without which our political inheritance will remain in jeopardy?

Terrorism and Islam have become associated in the popular mind, and in response, well-intentioned commentators urge that there is nothing new in terrorism and nothing about Islam that predisposes its adherents toward the use of it. Wasn’t it the Jacobins of the French Revolution who unleashed the beast? Didn’t terrorism find its political home with the Russian nihilists of the nineteenth century, thereafter to be adopted by radical movements throughout the twentieth?

The response is reasonable, but it prompts us to explore the deeper question of motive. What draws people to the use of terror? Is it chosen, as its apologists suggest, as a tactical device? Or is it chosen as an end in itself? From a certain perspective, it seems plausible to trace modern terrorism to the Enlightenment, to the idea of human equality, and to the attitude of ressentiment that Nietzsche rightly discerned in the heart of modern communities—the desire to destroy what one longs for when seeing it in others’ hands. But such a diagnosis ignores the fact that terrorism, as typified by the Russian nihilists and recorded in their name, is radically disconnected from any goal. Sometimes, it is true, terrorists—the Bolsheviks, the IRA, ETA—have furnished themselves with a cause, making believe that with the achievement of a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” a united Ireland, or a Basque national state, their purposes will be achieved and they can lay down their arms. But the cause is usually vague and utopian to the point of unreality, and its nonachievement seems part of its point—a way to justify the constant renewal of violence.

Terrorists might equally be entirely causeless, or dedicated to a cause so vaguely and metaphysically characterized that nobody (least of all themselves) could believe it to be achievable. Such were the Russian nihilists, as Dostoyevsky and Turgenev described them. Such, too, were the Italian Brigate Rosse and the German Baader-Meinhof gang of my youth. As Michael Burleigh shows in his magisterial Blood and Rage, modern terrorism has been far more interested in violence than in anything that might be achieved by it. It is typified by Joseph Conrad’s Professor, in The Secret Agent, who raises his glass “to the destruction of all that is.”

The vague or utopian character of the cause is therefore an important part of terrorism’s appeal, for it means that the cause does not define or limit the action. It is waiting to be filled with meaning by the terrorist, who is searching to change not the world but himself. To kill someone who has neither offended you nor given just cause for punishment, you have to believe yourself wrapped in some kind of angelic cloak of justification. You then come to see the killing as showing that you are indeed an angel. Your existence receives its final ontological proof.

Terrorists pursue a moral exultation, a sense of being beyond the reach of ordinary human judgment, radiated by a self-assumed permission of the kind enjoyed by God. Terrorism of this kind, in other words, is a search for meaning—the very meaning that citizenship, conceived in abstract terms, cannot provide. Even in its most secularized form, terrorism involves a kind of religious hunger.

It is very difficult to kill the innocent Mrs. Smith and her children as they go about their family shopping. Hence this strategy for ego-building cannot begin simply from the desire to kill. Mrs. Smith must become something else—a symbol of some abstract condition, a kind of incarnation of a universal enemy. Terrorists of the modern kind therefore tend to lean on doctrines that remove the humanity from the people they target. Marx’s theories served this purpose well, since they created the idea of the bourgeoisie, the “class enemy,” who had the same function in Bolshevik ideology as the Jews did in the ideology of the Nazis. Mrs. Smith and her children stand behind the target, which is the abstract bourgeois family. It just so happens that, when the bomb hits this target made of fictions, the shrapnel passes easily through it into the real body of Mrs. Smith. Sad for the Smiths, and often you will find terrorists making a kind of abstract apology, saying that it wasn’t their fault that Mrs. Smith got blown up and that really people ought not to stand behind targets in quite that way.

Islamist terrorists are animated, at some level, by the same troubled search for meaning and the same need to stand above their victims in a posture of transcendental exculpation. Ideas of liberty, equality, or historical right have no influence on their thinking, and they are not interested in possessing the powers and privileges that their targets enjoy. The things of this world have no real value for them, and if they sometimes seem to aim at power, it is only because power would enable them to establish the kingdom of God—an aim that they, like the rest of us, know to be impossible and therefore endlessly renewable in the wake of failure. Their carelessness about others’ lives is matched by their carelessness about their own. Life has no particular value for them; death beckons constantly from the near horizon of their vision. And in death, they perceive the only meaning that matters: the final transcendence of this world and of the accountability to others that this world demands of us.

People inoculated by the culture of repudiation, reluctant to acknowledge the search for meaning as a human universal, tend to think that all conflicts are really political, concerning who has power over whom. They are apt to believe that the causes of Islamist terrorism lie in the “social injustice” against which the terrorists protest and that the failure of all other attempts to rectify things renders their regrettable methods necessary. This seems to me to misinterpret radically the motives of terrorism in general and of Islamism in particular. The Islamist terrorist, like the European nihilist, is primarily interested in himself and his spiritual condition, and he has no real desire to change things here below, where he does not belong. He wants to belong to God, not to the world, and this means witnessing to God’s law and kingdom by destroying all that stands in their way, his own body included. Death is his ultimate act of submission: through death, he dissolves into a new and immortal brotherhood. The terror that his death inflicts both exalts the world of brotherhood and casts a devastating blow against the rival world of strangers, in which citizenship, not brotherhood, is the binding principle.

This is why we should recognize that we face a new kind of threat, one that does not have limited or negotiable objectives, that we cannot easily meet with a military confrontation, and that the usual means cannot deter. There is nothing we can offer the Islamists that will enable them to say that they have achieved their goal. If they succeeded in destroying a Western city with a nuclear bomb, or a whole population with a deadly virus, they would regard it as a triumph, even though it conferred no material, political, or religious benefit whatsoever.

Of course, the mass of ordinary Muslims would be appalled at such an event and would regard mass murder of the kind contemplated by al-Qaida as an outrage absolutely forbidden by the law of God. And there are encouraging signs that thinking Muslims are attempting to find a way to declare a public commitment to coexistence with the other two Abrahamic religions and to uphold the love of neighbor, even when the neighbor is of another faith. Witness the 2007 letter to religious leaders in the West, signed by 140 distinguished Muslim scholars, calling for dialogue among the faiths and for mutual respect as the foundation of coexistence. However, we should note two important facts. The first is that Islam has never succeeded in establishing any decisive source of religious authority. Each spiritual leader is self-appointed, like the Ayatollah Khomeini, and has no credibility outside his own circle of followers. People often say what a pity it is that Islam has had no Protestant Reformation. In fact, it is one unending series of Protestant Reformations, each of which claims to be the sole truth in the matter of man’s obedience to God.

The second important fact—and it is, I believe, connected—is that Muslims show a remarkable ability to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed in the name of their faith and to rally against anyone who disparages it. The notorious Danish cartoons caused outrage, uniting Muslims everywhere in acts of destruction and calls for revenge. A few days later, the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of the Shiite community’s holiest places, was blown up by Islamists. But where were the protests, outside Iraq? Far more Muslims than non-Muslims have been killed by Islamic terrorists. But when do those who claim to speak for Muslims mention this statistic? For that matter, the whole point of the infamous cartoons was to make us look at the atrocious things done in the Prophet’s name. Does he approve or doesn’t he?

Muslims must face up to this question. But a rooted double standard often prevents their turning on fellow Muslims the self-righteous anger that they turn on enemies of the faith. Such double standards are the direct result of the loss of irony. They stem from an inability to accept the otherness of everything, to stand outside one’s own opinions, and even one’s own faith, so as to see it as the faith of someone else. Not that Islam has always lacked irony in this respect: the works of the Sufi masters are full of it. But the Sufi masters (I think of Rumi and Hafiz especially) belong to that great and self-knowing Islamic culture on which the Islamists have turned their backs, embracing instead the narrow-minded bigotry of Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab or the self-deceived nostalgia of the Muslim Brotherhood and Sayyid Qutb.

The confrontation that we are involved in is thus not political or economic; it is not the first step toward a negotiation or a calling to account. It is an existential confrontation. The question put to us is: “What right do you have to exist?” By answering, “None whatsoever,” we invite the reply, “That’s what I thought.” An answer can avert the threat only by facing it down; and that means being absolutely convinced that we do have a right to exist and that we are prepared to concede an equal right to our opponents, though only on condition that the concession is mutual. No other strategy has a remote chance of succeeding.

Al-Qaida may be weak; the whole conspiracy to destroy the West may be little more than a fiction in the brains of the neoconservatives, who themselves may be a fiction in the brains of liberals. But the threat does not come from a conspiracy or from an organization. It comes from individuals undergoing a traumatic experience that we do not fully understand—the experience of a déraciné Muslim confronting the modern world, and without the benefit of the two gifts of forgiveness and irony. Such a person is an unpredictable by-product of unforeseen and uncomprehended circumstances, and our best efforts to understand his motives have so far suggested no policy that would deter attacks.

What, then, should our stance be in this existential confrontation? I think we should emphasize the very great virtues and achievements that we have built on our legacy of tolerance and show a willingness to criticize and amend all the vices to which it has also given undue space. We should resurrect Locke’s distinction between liberty and license and make it absolutely clear to our children that liberty is a form of order, not a license for anarchy and self-indulgence. We should cease to mock the things that mattered to our parents and grandparents, and we should be proud of what they achieved. This is not arrogance but a just recognition of our privileges.

We should also drop all the multicultural waffling that has so confused public life in the West and reaffirm the core idea of social membership in the Western tradition, which is the idea of citizenship. By sending out the message that we believe in what we have, are prepared to share it, but are not prepared to see it destroyed, we do the only thing that we can do to defuse the current conflict. Because forgiveness is at the heart of our culture, this message ought surely to be enough, even if we proclaim it in a spirit of irony.

Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher. His article is adapted from his McNish Lecture for the Advancement of Western Civilization at the University of Calgary.

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