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Chris Nolan notes that I do not reject the clash of civilizations thesis, but does not note that I also sidestepped the question in the interest of finding some common ground: namely, that there are severe problems within the worldwide Muslim community of believers which result in the phenomenon of Islamist terror. She seems to agree with this thesis when she states that “it’s clear we’re watching [in modern Islam] a culture at war with itself.” This is, I think, enough for public policy, but since she pursues it, let’s talk about culture and civilizations, and what they mean.

Nolan’s objections to the clash of civilizations thesis are as follows:

  • We cannot afford to “one set of social or cultural mores….above another.”

  • This is self-refuting: the very act of the assertion sets the social and cultural mores of tolerance — or multiculturalism, as you prefer — above all else. This is an act wholly impossible to avoid. If you find that things have intrinsic moral characteristics by virtue of their being — for example, if you sense that a man blowing up a bus in the name of his faith is somehow in all contexts a moral wrong — then you are setting a particular social or cultural more above others (in this case, that holding that there are contexts wherein bus-bombing is quite acceptable). If culture and its trappings were no more than an accretion of aesthetic or pragmatic preferences (curry rather than barbecue, pagodas rather than Gothic, llamas rather than yaks), then we might safely consign it to some manner of rough equality, and hence fundamental irrelevance. Because culture carries with it the baggage of history, ideas and practices, we do so only as an act of willful ignorance.

  • The modern phenomenon of Islamist terror is mostly a circumstantial reflection of technology and historical particulars.

  • Nolan overstates the effect of technology and the “connected, always-on digital age” of which she is a fan. It is indisputable that Islamist terror makes full use of the tools of the modern age, from aircraft to the internet. Many draw the lesson from this that the moral quality of the terror is therefore something new, and that the means of fighting it are new as well. Both assumptions are wrong. The folly of the “new” warfare finds its expression in the deathly maw of Iraq. What makes modern Islamist terror so unique is not its modern veneer but its barbarous ferocity: suicides, beheadings, the wanton slaughter of noncombatants, and public gloating over the same not commonly seen in the West since the Thirty Years’ War. Its cardinal quality is how profoundly primitive it is. Modernity abets its fury, but does not define its being. Having just closed out a century in which Rwandans massacred a million of their own in one hundred days with muscle power and machetes, we cannot afford to forget the overriding force that is the human will to annihilation.

  • A clash of civilizations ipso facto entails a belief that “one way of living or managing your relationship with your God [is] necessarily better than another,” and this is not true.

  • It is one of the cherished myths of modern liberalism that faith is faith, and faith is the same — except when faith is Republican, in which case it is the harbinger of whatever dystopia you particularly fear. Just as cultures are self-evidently inequal, so too are religions — not on a theological level, which is no concern of public policy, but on their effects on the public square. I made this point in my original essay, and it stands. Theo van Gogh insulted Christians and Jews and received irate letters in response; he insulted Muslims and was thus slaughtered like a farm animal by a believer. This is not, as Nolan posits, a case of religion as an “excuse”: it is religion and religious differences in as stark a form as one might imagine. Much as one might wish to imagine that terrorists and fanatics are bad people whose self-identified motivations are mere rationalizations for their basic evil, we know better: we know that otherwise benign men can be spurred to atrocity given sufficient reason and conditioning. Indeed, the training of the United States Army infantryman is premised upon this fact. Belief matters.

  • What appears to be a clash of civilizations is really a struggle within Islam.

  • These phenomena are not mutually exclusive: Nolan is, however, correct that the latter is well underway, and in the long run, our only real hope for peace.

    There is a great deal more to critique here — notably Nolan’s assertions that we cannot afford to differentiate among Muslims, and that the United States does not assume basic Muslim humanity — but in the interest of salvaging what little brevity there is, we’ll leave that to the next round.

    Share  Posted by Josh Trevino at 5:34 PM | Permalink

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