City Journal Winter 2016

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Eye on the News

Lee Harris
Mad Scientists
The disturbing lessons of the Doctors’ Plot
July 11, 2007

The terrorist attack at the Glasgow airport, and the attempted car bombings in London, killed no one, not even the Muslim men who were behind them. But despite the terrorists’ blundering failure, the Glasgow and London episodes are particularly chilling, because the perpetrators were not stereotypical fanatics or misfits living on the fringes of society. They were medical doctors who worked for the British health-care system—young, prosperous, and well-educated, a far cry from the disenfranchised malcontents who, we so often hear, are the true source of terrorism. As physicians, they had been trained (in Iraq, Jordan, and India) in accordance with the modern scientific method. They should have been enlightened technocrats, on the side of reason and moderation in Islam. The “doctors’ plot,” as it is now called, poses a challenge to one of the deepest convictions of the liberal West: that the language of science transcends cultural barriers.

We in the West accept the idea that different cultures have different cuisines, clothes, music, religions, marriage customs, and ways of raising children. Yet though a child may be born a Buddhist, a Baptist, a Muslim, or a Sikh, we also think that if he is taught a scientific curriculum, he will grow up to be a member of a cosmopolitan community—all of whose members, whatever their backgrounds, speak and understand the same language of dispassionate inquiry, objective truth, scientific analysis, and precise measurement. Those who enter this higher world of universal truth will be liberated from the shackles of their culture’s often backward traditions. Such, at least, has been the faith of the intellectual movement called the Enlightenment—a movement that owes much to the city in Scotland that was one of the sites of the failed terror attacks.

It was at the University of Glasgow that the great Adam Smith taught. Like the other members of the Scottish Enlightenment, Smith believed in the power of education to free men and to improve human prospects. In his masterpiece, The Wealth of Nations, Smith argued that the state should educate the working classes not simply because it was the right thing to do, but also because it was prudent. For Smith’s close friend, the philosopher David Hume, an ignorant multitude was a dangerous multitude, because ignorance bred both superstition and fanaticism. A practical, universal education, grounded in the scientific or experimental point of view, was the best means of assuring the peace and stability essential to a nation’s prosperity and security. Those educated in science could learn to live in harmony with one another.

This Enlightenment model, which has worked quite effectively in Europe and the United States, as well as in other parts of the world, has always relied on an advanced elite that brings learning to the masses through universal secular education. Many have hoped that Muslim nations would adopt the same model, with the same results. A minority of Muslim technocrats, who had received Western-style scientific educations, would help lead the Middle East into the modern era. They, too, would be eager to transcend their own narrow cultural perspectives, and to join other like-minded men and women across the globe.

But if Westernized technocrats like the Glasgow terrorists and the London bombers can enthusiastically embrace radical Islam, what group is left that can bring about the modernization of the Middle East?

Lee Harris’s new book is The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the West, published by Basic Books.

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