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The Heart of an Islamist By: David Solway
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, May 21, 2008


[The following is an excerpt from David Solway's new work-in-progress, Living in the Valley of Shmoon -- The Editors].

The West, whether the European Lilliput or the American Brobdingnag, has not yet realized that Middle Eastern-style autocracies are categorically different from Western-style democracies. It does not appreciate the role of culture and history in forming the folkways, attitudes and presuppositions of a people. It has not understood that the Islamic world does not play by our rules and that it lives by an entirely different code of conduct from that which we have taken for granted for centuries—a code in which reciprocities, trade-offs, standard negotiating parameters and the dialectic of mutual advantage do not signify. We refuse to see that we are dealing with a culture that is fundamentally alien to ours and that does not accept the axioms, postulates and expectations of politically pragmatic discourse or the procedures of reasonable accommodation. It is a culture whose institutional basis has almost nothing in common with the civic armature of Western civilization that has allowed the latter, albeit at great cost and in far too desultory a fashion, to resist its own homegrown tyrannies.

In the 21st century the Leviathan that would swallow us rises from another sea than our own. Western Christendom and post-Christendom are based on a completely different “symbolic order”—Jacques Lacan’s term for the way symbols are used unconsciously by a culture—from that of the Islamic world, especially with respect to the concept of individual autonomy, the modalities of personal salvation, the idea of citizenship, the rule of established law and the binding force of international accords.

We must also bear in mind that the enemy holds a clear advantage in what Norman Podhoretz has called, after the Cold War, World War IV: the terrorist camarillas, unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, have few structural assets to protect and the rogue regimes which protect them rely on their control of the oil supply and their stockpiling of Western currency reserves for immunity from retaliation. When a set of cultural assumptions rooted in an alien scripture and a traditional worldview which repudiate what we have come to understand as social and political evolution is added to these factors, the task before us takes on dismaying and redoubtable proportions.

We really have little idea how foreign the Islamic mindset is to our way of thinking and feeling. For example, we regard a death in battle as a loss—the word “losses” is a common synonym for “casualties”; whereas in the Islamic view, as attested in both the Koran and the hadith, each “loss” in battle is no such thing but a translation into paradise, a picayune price to pay for the gift of immediate salvation and part of the “bargain” the believer has closed with Allah. What we see as losses, the Muslim sees as gains, the “supreme triumph” guaranteed by the Faith. “Allah has purchased of the faithful their lives and worldly goods and in return has promised them the Garden. They will fight for his cause, slay and be slain…Rejoice then in the bargain you have made” (Koran 9:111). Death is sought and celebrated. This has no point of contact with what we have hallowed as the dicta of reason. What we do everything in our power to evade, the enemy joyfully welcomes. What we suffer as a privation, the enemy cherishes as a promotion. What we regard as a curse, the enemy accepts as a benefaction. Try, as they say, to get your mind around that.

As Lee Harris argues in The Suicide of Reason, in a prolonged standoff the rule of law is no match for the rule of the jungle, the individualist “rational actor” cannot hope to triumph against the collectivist “tribal actor”—at least, not until he adapts his strategy to meet the challenge—and the “myth of reason” in which we have come to believe, if we are unable or unwilling to refocus our attitude to the world, will see to our defeat at the hands of those who do not recognize the “normal rules of engagement” and “cannot take a moral stance outside the perspective of [their] tribe.” And the crisis we are now facing does not allow for that species of adjournment we call diplomacy or the nepenthean illusion of “dialogue” with an interlocutor who does not abide by its formative assumptions. Time is running out. “The borderless challenge of emancipated warriors,” cautions French philosopher André Glucksmann, “allows us little leisure for procrastination” (City Journal, August 2007). If we are not careful, it may well be game, set, match.

What the situation cries out for today are deeply educated and farsighted statesmen of the stamp of Winston Churchill and David Ben-Gurion, or at the very least determined political leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Instead, our fate is in the hands of one-dimensional, small men and women without vision, knowledge of history or the courage to act, except insofar as they are prospecting for votes. It is not only, as Joe Klein contends in Politics Lost, that the political process has been trivialized by the burgeoning tribe of “marketing professionels, consultants, and pollsters who…have robbed public life of its romance and vigor,” but that the subjects of the “pollster-consultant industrial complex” are themselves devoid of moral and intellectual substance to begin with. This fact was recognized by Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who in a 1993 meeting in Philadelphia said: “When I speak with the American, I speak with someone who doesn’t know anything” (Steven Emerson Blog, March 25, 2008). Add to this sorry spectacle of political vapidness and acedia the editorial vaporizings of a philistine press and the parlous state of journalistic ethics, and we have, to put it mildly, a big problem. Yet it does not take a mantic expertise to discern the probable future should we continue to sit back, swallow the sedatives of standard political analysis and let events take their course. For it is not just that Jews are under threat in the new wave of antisemitism spreading throughout the world. It is the Western secular democracies as well, in which both Jews and non-Jews have, if only intermittently, enjoyed the benefits of peace, prosperity and common egalitarian values, that are in grave danger of subsidence.

This is what all too many in the West, including its power-holders and influence-peddlers, refuse to understand. We are truly in a war, different from any war we have fought in the past, waged on many different fronts from fifth column infiltration to an expanding demographic to incendiary physical assault to “Dark Web” terror attacks on basic cyber infrastructures to the introduction of Shari’a Compliant Finance on the stock market, but a real war nevertheless that will persist well into the century. Let us not dissemble or extenuate. In its militant dimension it is a war that is once again approaching our shores—9/11 was only the opening salvo—and which will have real consequences in large numbers of casualties, civil disruption, cultural prostration and economic breakdown.

And it is a war that, in the long term, we may well lose if we do not awaken to the peril which confronts us. It is not by the pricking of our thumbs that some of us fear the imminence of a generations-long tumult but by a sober reading of the historical archive, the absorption of the relevant literature and an informed and common-sense alertness to the current scene. Those of us who are sounding the alarm will naturally be accused by the droves of sleepwalkers shuffling in the public domain of exaggeration and even of war-mongering in our turn. But when these contemporary R.I.P. Van Winkles are finally jarred awake by events, they will likely find themselves living and dying in a very different world from the one in which they fell asleep.

In his introduction to The Best American Essays (2002), entitled “To Open a Millennium,” Stephen J. Gould remarked that, as the 20th century began at the end of World War I, so the 21rst century dawned the day after September 11, 2001. This was the “fateful year” and the meaning of 9/11 was the substantive issue to be addressed. I venture to say he was correct. We are now challenged as never before as the 21st century unfolds toward the seismic event of civilizational conflict between a messianic world-faith and a secular world-view. There are no atoms of compatibility between two such global systems of culture and belief. Let us listen to the music before we have to face it. For the theme song of the Islamic adversary—we have the authority of Hamas chieftain Mahmoud Zahar on this—may be regarded as a modification of the famous Leonard Cohen lyric: first we take Jerusalem, then we take New York.


David Solway is the award-winning author of over twenty-five books of poetry, criticism, educational theory, and travel. He is a contributor to magazines as varied as the Atlantic, the Sewanee Review, Books in Canada, and the Partisan Review. He is the author of The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity. A new book on Jewish and Israeli themes, Hear, O Israel!, will be released by CanadianValuesPress this fall.


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