Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Islam & the West: A Review of The West & the Rest: Globalization & Terrorist Threat by Roger Scruton

I admit that I’d been reluctant to read this book because it was published in 2002, and I feared that it might be another ill-considered rush to publication in the wake to 9/11. (It turns out that my concerns about Scruton’s credentials were based on the erroneous assumption that he was new to the field. In fact, Scruton published a book about Lebanon in 1987.) Besides, Scruton is a high-end philosopher and a conservative. Some so-called conservatives have a propensity to rant. However, as I noted in arecent post, I’d read an essay by Scruton that I found persuasive, so I decided to give this book a try, and I’m glad that I did—despite the false advertising. 

False advertising? Well, the title—the most important advertising a book ever receives—misleads. Despite an opening discussion of Samuel Huntington’s “the clash of civilizations” hypothesis, Scruton only focuses on two civilizations: “the West” (with its Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Greco-Roman genealogy) and Islamic civilization. Scruton doesn’t address China, Japan, India, or Russia (with its roots in Orthodox Christianity and Marxism). Neither does Scruton spend much time addressing terrorism as such, its sociology and ideology. Others have explored the roots of terrorists, such as Scott Atran, for only one example. Finally, Scruton doesn’t spend much time on globalization as an economic reality. So what does Scruton write about that makes this book worthwhile? He writes about the characteristics of Islam society and political thinking contrasted with that of Western institutions, and he does so well and thoroughly. 

In his preface, Scruton notes a contrast that will remain a recurring theme throughout the book, that between the contemporary West and Islam: 

Islamic civilization involves a common religious belief, based on a sacred text whose law may be misapplied but never altered. It defines itself in terms not of freedom but of submission. Islam, salm, and salaam—“submission,” “peace,” and “safety”— all derive from the verb salima, whose primary meaning is “to be secure,” “unharmed,” or “blameless,” but which has a derived form meaning “to surrender.” The muslim is the one who has surrendered, submitted, and so obtained security. In that complex etymological knot is tied a vision of society and its rewards far different from anything that has prevailed in modern Europe and America. 

Western civilization also grew from a common religious belief and a sacred text, and, like Islam, originated in a religious movement among Semitic people— albeit people living under an imperial yoke, for whom submission was already a day-to-day reality. Western civilization has left behind its religious belief and its sacred text, to place its trust not in religious certainties but in open discussion, trial and error, and the ubiquitousness of doubt.

Scruton, Roger (2014-05-13). The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat. Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Kindle Edition.

It is the uniqueness of modern Western institutions and beliefs that set off the West against the traditions of Islam. Even when Christianity was the dominant cultural fact in the West (such as in the High Middle Ages), the theory of the Two Swords—of both ecclesiastical and secular rulers exercising authority—differs from the ongoing practice in the lands of Islam. Scruton details how Roman law and even Greek drama differentiate the sacred and secular realms. Over the course of Western history, ideas of contract and eventually social contracts—governance based on the consent of the governed—began to take root. Scruton goes on to consider the proposition that “we” (as in “We the People”) is a basis of Western polities. Based on his analysis, the nation-state becomes a crucial instrument in fostering and maintaining a sense of community that allows the existence of a self-governing polity. After the Thirty Years War and the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), Europe effectively established the nation-state as legal and international reality and put most (but by no means all) of its religious strife about control of the public realm behind it. (The French Revolution and “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland among the significant exceptions.) Also, the nation-state, through the vehicle of nationalism, came to supplement—if not supplant—the idea of God, which following the Enlightenment became more of a matter of the head than of the heart. Scruton summarizes his argument: 

The point that I wish to emphasize is that the emergence of the modern Western state, in which jurisdiction is defined over territory, supported by secular conceptions of legitimacy , and associated with the rights and duties of citizenship, has also coincided with the emergence of a special kind of pre-political loyalty, which is that of the nation, conceived as a community of neighbors sharing language, customs, territory, and a common interest in defense.

Scruton, Roger (2014-05-13). The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat (pp. 46-47). Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Kindle Edition.

From this history, (much of) the West developed ideas of citizenship, that, especially in the U.S., were crucial for incorporating immigrants from far-flung lands. Scruton argues that this attitude contrasts with the traditional ties still dominant in Islamic countries: 

A modern democracy is perforce a society of strangers. And the successful democracy is the one where strangers are expressly included in the web of obligation. Citizenship involves the disposition to recognize and act upon obligations to those whom we do not know. The comparative absence of this disposition from the Islamic countries in the Middle East has had catastrophic consequences, as attitudes shaped by religion and family ties try to adapt themselves to a world made by strangers. The clatter of industrial progress, the remorseless technological change, the constant uprooting, pillaging, and tearing down , the tireless glare of the media, the irresistible invasions by the state and its agents— all this amplifies the desire to seek refuge in family, tribe, or religion, and to divide the world into friends and foes.

Scruton, Roger (2014-05-13). The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat (p. 53). Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Kindle Edition.

After this point in the book, Scruton wanders off into criticisms of multiculturalism and feminism, which, while not without merit, tend to go carry on about excesses instead of considering common practices and beliefs. However, Scruton is right about the values that give us the political and legal system that we have is worth defending. The Western ideas about the public realm do contrast markedly from the totalizing demands of Islam and these differences do create problems that we in the West have a hard time understanding. The nation-state in the Middle East, Iraq, for instance, just doesn’t seem to work. Some do, such as Turkey and Egypt, but not without some significant conflicts between the secular authorities and Islamic fundamentalists. 

Scruton digs more deeply into the contrast between Islamic law and the secular law of the West to show the different beliefs and assumptions of the two systems. This history and appreciation of the two contrasting legal and cultural systems gives the reader a much greater appreciation of the source of differences between our views of the world. Finally, Scruton has a chapter on globalization, but it’s mainly about the encroachment of a Western-dominated world into Islamic lands. For instance, Scruton, who has published extensively about aesthetics, writes about the destruction of traditional Islamic architecture in the name of modernizing cities. 

Scruton closes with this remark, which reveals a measured and thoughtful response to our predicaments: 

When people enjoy the benefits of citizenship they treat the world in an open and enterprising way; they become careless of the sacrifices on which sovereignty depends, and oblivious of the corrosive force of human contact. And this state of mind, which seems like good-natured toleration in the one who has succumbed to it, may be seen from outside as intolerable hubris, calling down judgment from the gods.

 Nevertheless, we are rational creatures, and nothing prevents us from thinking through alternatives to the habits that have placed us in so much danger. Unless we are prepared to do so, the idea of a “war against terrorism” makes little sense. Terrorism is not, after all, an enemy, but a method used by the enemy. The enemy is of two kinds: the tyrant dictator, and the religious fanatic whom the tyrant protects. To act against the first is feasible, if we are prepared to play by the tyrant’s rules. But to act against the second requires a credible alternative to the absolutes with which he conjures. It requires us not merely to believe in something, but to study how to put our beliefs into practice.

Scruton, Roger (2014-05-13). The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat (p. 161). Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Kindle Edition.

Therefore, if you’re interested in the particulars of regimes in the Middle East or the particulars of where terrorists come from, you should look elsewhere. But if you want an appreciation and understanding of fundamental differences about how the West and Islam view and work in the world, this is a well-considered effort to consider those issues.