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Islam and the West: Lines of Demarcation

By Roger Scruton

What it is about our civilization that causes such resentment, and why we must defend it.


The West today is involved in a protracted and violent struggle with the forces of radical Islam. This conflict is intensely difficult, both because of our enemy’s dedication to his cause, and also, perhaps most of all, because of the enormous cultural shift that has occurred in Europe and America since the end of the Vietnam War. Put simply, the citizens of Western states have lost their appetite for foreign wars; they have lost the hope of scoring any but temporary victories; and they have lost confidence in their way of life. Indeed, they are no longer sure what that way of life requires of them.
At the same time, they have been confronted with a new opponent, one who believes that the Western way of life is profoundly flawed, and perhaps even an offense against God. In a “fit of absence of mind,” Western societies have allowed this opponent to gather in their midst; sometimes, as in France, Britain, and the Netherlands, in ghettos which bear only tenuous and largely antagonistic relations to the surrounding political order. And in both America and Europe there has been a growing desire for appeasement: a habit of public contrition; an acceptance, though with heavy heart, of the censorious edicts of the mullahs; and a further escalation in the official repudiation of our cultural and religious inheritance. Twenty years ago, it would have been inconceivable that the archbishop of Canterbury would give a public lecture advocating the incorporation of Islamic religious law (shari’ah) into the English legal system. Today, however, many people consider this to be an arguable point, and perhaps the next step on the way to peaceful compromise.
All this suggests that we in the West stand on the edge of a dangerous period of concession, in which the legitimate claims of our own culture and inheritance will be ignored or downplayed in an attempt to prove our peaceful intentions. It will be some time before the truth will be allowed to play its all-important role of rectifying our current mistakes and preparing the way for the next ones. This means that it is more necessary than ever for us to rehearse the truth and come to a clear and objective understanding of what is at stake. I will, therefore, spell out in what follows some of the critical features of the Western inheritance which must be understood and defended in our current confrontation. Each of these features marks a point of contrast, and possibly of conflict, with the traditional Islamic vision of society, and each has played a vital part in creating the modern world. Islamist belligerence stems from having found no secure place in that world, and from turning for refuge to precepts and values that are at odds with the Western way of life. This does not mean that we should renounce or repudiate the distinguishing features of our civilization, as many would have us do. On the contrary, it means that we must be all the more vigilant in their defense.
 
The first of the features that I have in mind is citizenship. The consensus among Western nations is that the law is made legitimate by the consent of those who must obey it. This consent is given through a political process in which each citizen participates in the making and enacting of the law. The right and duty of participation is what we mean by “citizenship,” and the distinction between political and religious communities can be summed up by the view that the former are composed of citizens, whereas the latter are composed of subjects who have “submitted” (which is the primary meaning of the word islam). If we seek a simple definition of the West as it is today, it would be wise to take this concept of citizenship as our starting point. Indeed, it is what the millions of migrants roaming the world are in search of: an order that confers security and freedom in exchange for consent.
Traditional Islamic society, by contrast, sees law as a system of commands and recommendations laid down by God. These edicts cannot be amended, though their application in particular cases may involve jurisprudential argument. Law, as Islam understands it, is a demand for our obedience, and its author is God. This is the opposite of the concept of law that we in the West have inherited. Law for us is a guarantee of our freedoms. It is made not by God, but by man, following the instinct for justice that is inherent in the human condition. It is not a system of divine commands, but rather the residue of human agreements.
This is particularly evident to British and American citizens, who have enjoyed the inestimable benefit of the common law—a system which has not been laid down by some sovereign power but, on the contrary, built up by the courts in their attempts to do justice in individual conflicts. Western law is therefore a “bottom-up” system that addresses the sovereign in the same tone of voice that it reserves for the citizen. It insists that justice, not power, will prevail. Hence, it has been evident since the Middle Ages that the law, even if it depends on the sovereign to impose it, can also depose the sovereign if he tries to defy it.
As our law has developed, it has permitted the privatization of religion and of large areas of morality. To us, for instance, a law punishing adultery is not just absurd, but oppressive. We disapprove of adultery, but we also think that it is none of the law’s business to punish sin just because it is sin. In the shari’ah, however, there is no distinction between morality and law. Both stem from God, and are to be imposed by the religious authorities in obedience to his revealed will. To some extent, the harshness of this is mitigated by a tradition which allows for recommendations as well as obligations in rulings of the holy law. Nevertheless, there is still no place in the shari’ah for the privatization of the moral, and still less of the religious, aspects of life.
Of course, most Muslims do not live under shari’ah law. Only here and there—in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan, for example—is the attempt made to impose it. Elsewhere, Western codes of civil and criminal law have been adopted, following a tradition begun in the early nineteenth century by the Ottomans. But this recognition accorded to Western civilization by the Islamic states has its dangers. It inevitably provokes the thought that the law of the secular powers is not really law; that, in truth, it has no real authority, and is even a kind of blasphemy. Sayyid Qutb, the former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, argued precisely this in his seminal work Milestones. Indeed, rebellion against the secular powers is easy to justify when their law is seen as usurping the sovereign authority of God.
From its origins, then, Islam has found it difficult to accept that mankind stands in need of any other law, or any other sovereign, than those revealed in the Koran. Hence the great schism following the death of Muhammad, which divided Shi’ia from Sunni. From the point of view of secular government, questions of legitimate succession such as those that drove these two groups apart are settled by the very same constitution that governs the daily operation of the law. That is to say, ultimately they are a matter of human agreement. But a community that believes itself to be governed by God, on terms conveyed by his messenger, has a real problem when the messenger dies: who takes over, and how? The fact that rulers in Islamic communities have a greater-than-average tendency to end up assassinated is not unconnected with this question. The sultans of Istanbul, for instance, surrounded themselves with a household guard of Janissaries chosen from among their Christian subjects precisely because they did not trust any Muslim to miss the opportunity to rectify the insult to God represented in the person of a merely human ruler. The Koran itself speaks to this point, in sura 3, verse 64, commanding Jews and Christians to take no divinity besides the one God and no lords (ârbâbân) from among each other.
In short, citizenship and secular law go hand in hand. We are all participants in the process of law-making; hence we can view each other as free citizens, whose rights must be respected and whose private lives are our own concern. This has made possible the privatization of religion in Western societies and the development of political orders in which the duties of the citizen take precedence over religious scruples. How this is possible is a deep and difficult question of political theory; that it is possible is a fact to which Western civilization bears incontrovertible witness.
 
This brings me to the second feature which I identify as central to European civilization: nationality. No political order can achieve stability if it cannot call upon a shared loyalty, a “first-person plural” that distinguishes those who share the benefits and burdens of citizenship from those who are outside the fold. In times of war, the need for this shared loyalty is self-evident, but it is as necessary in times of peace, if people really are to treat their citizenship as defining their public obligations. National loyalty marginalizes loyalties to family, tribe, and faith, and places before the citizen, as the focus of his patriotic feeling, not a person or a group, but a country. This country is defined by a territory, and by the history, culture, and law that have made that territory ours. Nationality is composed of land, together with the narrative of its possession.
It is this form of territorial loyalty that has enabled people in Western democracies to exist side by side, respecting each other’s rights as citizens despite radical differences in faith and absent any bonds of family, kinship, or long-term local custom to sustain the solidarity between them. Such national loyalty is not known everywhere in the world, and certainly not in the places where Islamists are rooted. People sometimes refer to Somalia, for example, as a “failed state,” since it has no central government capable of making decisions on behalf of the people as a whole, or of imposing any kind of legal order. The real trouble with Somalia, however, is not that it is a failed state, but that it is a failed nation. It has never developed the kind of secular, territorial, and law-minded loyalty that makes it possible for a country to shape itself into a nation-state, and not simply an assembly of competing tribes and families.
The same is true of many other places where Islamists are produced. Even if, as in the case of Pakistan, these countries function like states, they are often failures as nations. They have not succeeded in generating the kind of territorial loyalty which enables people of different faiths, different kinship networks, and different tribes to live peacefully side by side, and also to fight side by side on behalf of their common homeland. The recent history of these countries might lead us to wonder whether there is not, in the end, a genuine and profound conflict between the Islamic conception of community and the conceptions which have fed our own idea of national government. Maybe the nation-state really is an anti-Islamic idea.
This observation is, of course, highly pertinent to the Middle East today, where we find the remnants of a great Islamic empire divided into nation-states. With a few exceptions, this division is the result of boundaries drawn by Western powers, most notably by Britain and France in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. It should hardly be surprising, therefore, that Iraq has had such a checkered history as a nation-state, given that it has only spasmodically been a state, and has never been a nation. It may be that Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi’ias in Iraq will all come, in time, to see themselves as Iraqis. But this national identity will likely be fragile and fissiparous, and in any conflict the three groups will identify themselves in opposition to each other. Only the Kurds seem to have developed a genuine national identity, and it is one opposed to that of the state in which they are included. As for the Shi’ias, their primary loyalty is religious, and in turbulent times they look to the homeland of Shi’ia Islam in Iran as a model.


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