[The following essay first appeared at the old Palace Of Reason on November 16, 2002. I've edited it slightly for reuse today. Given current attempts by various
idiotscommentators to obscure the role of Islam in the Tsarnaev brothers' terrorist acts, it seems peculiarly relevant. I'll continue the "Of Laws And Men" series later in the week. -- FWP]
1. Statements Of Policy
A recent interview of the Grand Mufti of Egypt, conducted by veteran reporter and commentator Kenneth Timmerman and published originally in Insight magazine, reinforces the irreconcilability of Western concepts of rights and freedom with Islamic absolutism, and possibly with Islam of any sort. The most salient parts of that interview were excerpted at the online news site World Net Daily, to which I refer the reader with a passion for horrifying details.
In essence, the Grand Mufti defended Palestinian homicide bombing as legitimate resistance against Israeli oppressions. He also characterized the United States as an oppressor nation and such persons as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "terrorists," because they had spoken critically of Islam. He repeatedly refused to engage the morality of Palestinian targeting of civilians, asserting toward the end that:
Life is sacred in Islam. But we are facing the Israeli state, which is militarily based. Israeli citizens are like warriors. They have their weapons with them at all times. So who are civilians, Palestinians or Israelis?
This is an excellent specimen of a non-falsifiable argument -- a specious argument that no evidence nor logic could overcome. All states are militarily based. They are instruments for the wielding of force: to protect their citizens from foreign attack and from domestic predators. If merely being a citizen of a nation-state makes one a warrior, then there cannot be any civilians.
It is a regular characteristic of dishonest persons to attempt to confuse their opponents by twisting the terms of debate. We've seen enough of this from Islamic clerics not to be surprised by it any more. This kind of dishonest sophistry in defense of the worst men in the world, men who murder children in their beds, is nothing less than aiding and abetting political murder. It casts a huge pall of doubt over the sincerity of those who claim, against the contrary tide of blood-drenched evidence, that "Islam is a religion of peace."
But I'm not telling you anything you haven't heard before, am I?
The American attempt to combat Islamic terrorism without engaging its ideological underpinnings greatly resembles a scene from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged:
[James Taggart] "What I mean is, there are practical problems to solve, which...For instance, what was that matter of our last allocation of new rail vanishing from the storehouse in Pittsburgh?"
[Dagny Taggart] "Cuffy Meigs stole it and sold it."
"Can you prove that" he snapped defensively.
"Have your friends left any means, methods, rules or agencies of proof?"
"Then don't talk about it, don't be theoretical, we've got to deal with facts! We've got to deal with facts as they are today...I mean, we've got to devise some practical means to protect our supplies under existing conditions, not under unprovable assumptions, which --"
She chuckled. There was the form of the formless, she thought, there was the method of his consciousness: he wanted her to protect him from Cuffy Meigs without acknowledging Meigs's existence, to fight it without admitting its reality, to defeat it without disturbing its game.
No one has ever dealt as well with archetypes as Ayn Rand.
2. Striking The Root.
One can destroy an ordinary threat by ordinary means. One opposes the armed enemy with more or better arms. One opposes the ideological opponent with a better ideology. These are not difficult things to do, at least in concept.
An enemy who combines a totalitarian ideology with a program of aggression is a true challenge. And all totalitarianisms are aggressive.
Consider the major totalitarian adventures in recent history. Not one was content with any delimited sphere of command. All insistently reached out for more territory, more subjects, more scope for the dictators' whims. All impoverished their people to build huge militaries, and all acted against "deviation" with the harshest means at their disposal, including torture, murder, hostage-taking, and coerced alteration of dissidents' personalities -- brainwashing.
In all measurable respects, they were identical.
This identity of result, this absolute convergence on an aggressive hostility toward anything that surrounded them, flows directly from their common premise: that one may, for whatever reason, use force against others to compel them to submit to one's will. That central filament of thought overcomes any and every impulse toward acceptance of divergent opinions or customs. Even to suggest that one might tolerate differences is to brand oneself an enemy of the regime.
The premise of rightful use of unlimited power couples the holder inextricably to force and its instruments. Force, as we know, cannot build; it can only destroy. A system of thought married to the wielding of unlimited force inevitably loses any constructive features and becomes a threat to whatever it approaches.
Systems of thought that limit the use of force to deterring and defending against enemies are viable as long as the limits are respected. They leave room for the differences of opinion, custom and taste within which market exchange and diversity of belief can flourish. Thus, a country such as the United States can possess a huge military, equal in capability to all the other militaries of the world combined, yet possess substantial internal freedom and economic dynamism. Compare this to Sandinista Nicaragua, whose totalitarian government destroyed all economic enterprise and all traffic in ideas, especially international traffic, even though its armed forces were never as much as one percent of America's.
The root is the totalitarian premise: unlimited use of force. One may shatter the enemy's army in the field, or overthrow its state and put its leaders to death, but if the root premise remains, the enemy will rise again, and will need to be put down again.
This is why military victories are not always sufficient to produce an enduring peace.
3. Facets Of Totalitarianism
The totalitarian will rationalize any deed, however atrocious, in pursuit of his objectives. The precise nature of those objectives doesn't matter at all.
Moreover, the totalitarian will strive to cast his opponents in the harshest possible light, branding him an enemy of all humanity if he can. The precise nature of the enemy is irrelevant. Hitler and Stalin were willing to demonize one another, despite the interchangeability of their regimes. The Soviet Union was willing to brand the United States and its NATO allies as the worst threats to peace on the planet, even though all the evidence was in the opposite direction.
This is both a tactical necessity and a feature of totalitarian ideology. Totalitarian ideologies cannot be completely successful unless they own, not merely the bodies, but the minds of their subjects. Such complete dominance of a people's thought is not possible unless all competing systems and alternative ideologies are anathematized, such that even the willingness to entertain them is a mark of the Beast.
The underlying need to be served is the preservation of absolute moral certainty.
No matter what one's overt posture on right and wrong, all persons, and all political schemes, must have one. The dichotomy between rights and force is unavoidable; the two are mutually defining. A passage from Eric Harry's recent novel Protect And Defend is eloquent on this subject:
"Rights are an archist concept. Rights have no meaning except when confronted with superior power. They are what is left to the people after the government has taken all it wants. Your country's Bill of Rights defines your most cherished freedoms how? By limiting the legal power of government to encroach upon them."
In this statement by a Russian anarchist theorist to an American reporter, Mr. Harry has exactly captured the nature of rights, and why they matter. From it we may easily infer why a power animated by the totalitarian premise can never concede any rights, nor allow its subjects to regard any potential instrument of opposition as possessing rightness in any degree. They must arrogate all authority over right and wrong unto themselves.
In comparison with this, all other, organizational or ideological facets of totalitarianism pale to insignificance. Why all totalitarian regimes converge on absolute oppression and aggression against their neighbors stands explained.
4. Today's Preeminent Totalitarianism.
We have entered an era in which political ideology is ceding the stage to other forms of ideology. Though he overstated the case, Francis Fukuyama's core idea in his book The End Of History And The Last Man was basically sound. Political theory has reached an end state where only two alternatives remain: liberal democracy and anarchism.
Economics, in practice, shelters under the wing of some political system. The prevailing economics of liberal democratic states is the free market, albeit adulterated by government interventions for particular purposes. There are degrees and variations, but the central features of all such economies are compatible, because they flow from a common concept of property rights and the right to exchange. Over time, we may expect still more substantial commonalities, as a result of international competition.
In the domestic economy of the United States, we see a trend toward ever greater liberalization. [FWP: Note that this was written in 2002.] Those who favor thorough government regulation are being swept back by the superior performance of self-regulating markets, where men's plans to produce and trade are subject to control only by their customers' preferences, and not by political whim or changes in the law. Inasmuch as America is the economic heart of the world, this pattern will probably be reproduced in other states which respect equality before the law and whose people want to achieve as Americans have. Thus, as with politics, economic theory has reached an end state: the free market.
Religion is the battleground of our time.
The Judeo-Christian religions, which share a common moral code and a vision of the Divine will as benevolent toward all men, have no problems with one another. There will always be some amount of sniping, of course -- you can't have a religion without asserting that you're right where others are wrong -- but internecine warfare of the sort that blotted earlier eras is unlikely.
The risks arise from the sole major religion that asserts Divine intolerance of dissent and instructs its followers to act accordingly: Islam.
Islam has all the other earmarks of a totalitarian ideology as well. The religion's clerical keepers assert unbounded authority, punish all deviations from absolute orthodoxy, and demonize any competing belief system without reference to its actual pronouncements. The "fundamentalist" clergy, in accordance with the unaltered words of the Qur'an, sanctify the use of force to spread Islam, promise rewards in the afterlife to those who die in such service, and indemnify the Muslim for acts against "infidels" that would be crimes if committed against a brother Muslim. The results have been horrifying.
Most critical is the transformation of Islam from a creed to an instrument for domination. The Grand Mufti of Egypt, in his adroit avoidance of any objective assessment of the deeds of Palestinian Muslims and his passionate denunciation of others who have "insulted" Islam, exemplifies a major consequence of a totalitarian system: Those who act according to the system cannot be wrong, while those who resist it cannot be right.
The fault lines that run through the Islamic world, and the response of the "fundamentalists" to the "liberals," further underscore Islam's totalitarian nature: they demand absolute authority and are willing to kill even dissident Muslims to get and keep it.
We may observe a great irony in the use of "fundamentalist" to describe certain Christian communities. Though they teach Biblical literalism, and emphasize traditional behavioral proscriptions to a degree that others consider harsh, they are essentially liberal toward those who disagree. The most any "fundamentalist" Christian threatens a dissident with is undesirable accommodations in the afterlife. Clearly, "fundamentalist" Christians are of a different and far more benign stripe than "fundamentalist" Muslims, whatever the Grand Mufti might think.
A Christian of any denomination recognizes a Christian of any other sort as a brother and fellow-traveler on the road to salvation. The same applies to the various subfamilies of Judaism. To a "fundamentalist" Muslim, a "moderate" Muslim, who argues for modernizing his creed and adapting to secular states, is an apostate from Islam in the process of defining a competing creed, and therefore must be destroyed.
The cloth is of a single pattern.
If it abjures violence and edits from its sacred texts the many sanctifications and exhortations that its adherents do violence in its service, Islam might survive as a religion in some altered form. However, textually absolute, doctrinally inerrant, "fundamentalist" Islam, now fully converted from a body of belief to an instrument for the acquisition of absolute power over others, cannot -- unless it is permitted to take over the world. In its identity of premises and methods with all other totalitarian ideologies, it demonstrates daily why men of good will cannot coexist with it.