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David F Mayer
"Don't blame the West"-Ottawa Citizen
Mon Jan 3, 2011 21:31

The 'root causes' of Islamist terrorism do not lie in poverty or western imperialism, but an age old conflict between reason and revelation

By Robert Sibley, Ottawa Citizen January 3, 2011

During the last decade of Islamist terrorism, numerous commentators, particularly those on the left, have adopted a materialist approach to explain why some Muslims want to slaughter guests at hotels in Mumbai or detonate bombs at Christmas festivals in Sweden.

Terrorism, they argue, is rooted in poverty, frustration over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and memories of western imperialism. In other words, so the argument goes, the West itself is to blame for terrorism. If only the West would apologize, make reparations, abandon Israel, leave the Middle East and Afghanistan, all would be well. Or at least that's where the root-cause crowd's assumptions logically lead.

The problem with this materialist view of terrorism is that it largely misses the spiritual motivations that inform Islamist geo-politics. As political theorist Barry Cooper argues in his book, New Political Religions, or, An Analysis of Modern Terrorism, the Islamists, like the Nazis and Communists, are motivated more by a "disease of the spirit" than materialist aspirations. "When ordinary human beings see themselves as specially chosen by God, or even as gods themselves, they are not necessarily psychopaths, but they most definitely are spiritually disordered."

Cooper draws on Eric Voegelin, a 20th-century political philosopher who coined the term "pneumopathology" to account for the spiritual diseases of the modern world. Voegelin argued that some people -- politicians, intellectuals, journalists, for example -- prefer to see the world as a projection of their desires rather than comprehend its reality. Such fabulists effectively live in what Voegelin called a "second-order reality." If they acquire power they all-too-often pursue extreme measures -- genocide, gulags, crashing airplanes into buildings -- to transform the world to suit their fantasies of perfection.


Blame the imams. In the 11th century, Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, a brilliant if tormented theologian, published The Incoherence of the Philosophers, effectively bringing to conclusion centuries of debate in the Muslim world about the primacy of reason versus that of revelation. Reason makes us question things, makes us doubtful and uncertain, al-Ghazali argued. He attacked philosophers who thought that humans could know the world by means of rational thought. Reason, he said, leads to despair. Only divine revelation, the word of God as revealed in the Koran, provides certain knowledge of how best to live. Human reason must submit to Allah's will.

A century later, another Muslim philosopher challenged al-Ghazali's views. In The Incoherence of the Incoherence, Ibn Rushd -- better known in the West as Averroes -- argued that reason was God's gift to mankind and was to be used for the betterment of society. Ignorant theologians should not intrude on areas they don't understand. It was too late. The imams carried the day. Averroes' books were burned and he fled into exile. The voice of reason fell silent in courts of the caliphs and Muslim culture gradually ossified.

Some scholars argue that Islamist terrorism can be traced to this eclipse of reason. Unlike Christianity, which eventually found a way to balance the claims of Athens and Jerusalem, leaving it open to the scientific reasoning that re-emerged in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, Islam has never reconciled reason and revelation. This unwillingness to reconcile the human and the divine fosters the kind of spiritual pathologies that give birth to terrorism.

"Islamism is grounded in a spiritual pathology based upon a theological deformation that has produced a dysfunctional culture," argues political scientist Robert Reilly in a newly published book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. Mainstream Sunni Islam, which comprises the majority of the faithful in the Muslim world, "has shut the door to reality in a profound way." This, says Reilly, is the consequence of Islam's long suppression of reason in favour of religious dogmatism.

Reilly refers to the abandonment of scientific thinking as the "Dehellenization" of Islam. Islam was eventually dominated by those who thought like al-Ghazali. They held that the Koran contained Allah's direct speech. And, because Allah's will and action is unlimited, the Koran, as his eternal word, must apply to all times and places. There is no need to look elsewhere in responding to the human condition, regardless of changing circumstances. Since Allah is the first cause of everything, there is no need to look for secondary causes; that is to say, no need to use reason to understand nature's laws, and, therefore, no need for science.

David F Mayer

    • Not So Simple...Uru Hammer, Tue Jan 4 08:21
      The conflict between reason and revelation tends to take form in a philosophical expression when the conflicted parties are otherwise happy. When the conflicted parties are otherwise unhappy, it... more
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