Friday, January 04, 2008

Ajami and Ali share their wisdom

I came across two very interesting articles in the New York Times Books section today. Almost all the reviews and essays are related to Islam.

The first is an essay by Fouad Ajami. I've read his essays in Newsweek and usually find him interesting and intelligent. This essay is no different. He writes about his past criticism of Samuel Huntington's well-known (for good reason) article and subsequent book: The Clash of Civilizations. With hindsight, Ajami gives more credit to Huntington's prediction that the end of the cold war would be followed by a much more serious clash between Islam and the West. "Nearly 15 years on, Huntington’s thesis about a civilizational clash seems more compelling to me than the critique I provided at that time."

The second, and much more interesting, is a review by Ayaan Hirsi Ali of Lee Harris' The Suicide of Reason. Ali is the author of Infidel--a book on my to read list. And after this review, her book is bumped to the top of that list.

She praises Harris' book for its treatment of Islamic fanaticism: its utter rejection of reason, its glorification of self-sacrifice, and its “grand mission of conversion.” She takes him to task, however, for his view of the “fanaticism of reason.” This is his view that the West’s reliance on reason blinds the West to the true nature of the Islamic world. Reason leads the West to an assumption of universally shared values, motivations, and goals. But, Harris apparently argues, this is a fatal mistake. The Islamic world does not share the values of the West and assuming they do, leads us to misunderstand their actions and goals and thus fail to respond appropriately.

Ali doesn’t disagree with the essential idea here: that Islam and the West have fundamentally different world-views and values and that we in the West often fail to recognize this. Where she takes issue with Harris is in his view that reliance on reason is the culprit. Harris, she argues, seems to think that reason makes us weak and the reliance on faith and force in the Muslim world makes them strong: “our worship of reason is making us easy prey for a ruthless, unscrupulous and extremely aggressive predator and may be contributing to a slow cultural ‘suicide.’”

Not so, says Ali. Reason is our great strength, not our weakness: “The problem, however, is not too much reason but too little.” Harris fails to see the real problem: the West’s own rejection of reason: religion and romanticism. Both, she claims, are hostile to modernity and the Enlightenment (and thus reason). Romanticism encourages moral relativism and glorifies tribal life over the individual. This undermines reason and individualism in the West and gives succor to our Islamic enemies.

She appears to be drawing a similar distinction to one that David Kelley draws between pre-modern, modern, and post-modern (See his The Party of Modernity). Kelley argues that the pre-modern and post-modern are both opposed to the modern in their rejection (or diminution) of reason. Ali identifies religion as something that the Enlightenment must grow out of and overcome (pre-modern) and that the romanticism is reaction against the Enlightenment and reason (post-modern).

Ali recognizes that what the West needs to defeat Islamic fanaticism is to rediscover and embrace the Enlightenment: it needs reason and individualism.

Whether it’s Rand’s escape from the Soviet Union or Ali’s escape from Muslim tribal life, it is interesting that it takes some one born and raised outside the West to see not just the dangers inherent from where they came but the salvation offered by a culture of reason and individualism.


Anonymous said...

Good day,

One of the main problems I have with the Enlightenment "project", I would term, is that it creates a false, or perhaps ineffective, opposite to Faith.

In fact, when Kant wrote to rally men into coming out of their mental slumber, it was actually disaster that followed. Failing to understand human psychology, I believe that the masses moved against Faith before they were even truly 'Enlightened'. They simply acted upon the writings of these revolutionaries and intellectuals, who simply pointed a path out of all the mess, before they even understood the value and meaning of Enlightenment.

What we have today is a society, not in anyway improved over the society of the medieval, but based instead on a firm insistence on Reason rather than Faith. Little has however changed. While Faith could be easily emulated or even forced by images of Hell and fear, Reason is not a gift native to Man. Faith plays on the feelings, and perhaps Romanticism offered a closer and more accurate pathway out of Faith than Reason. Unfortunately it never really did catch up. Even if it did, there is always a possibility that people would just follow blindly, rather than understanding Romanticism (technically feeling Romanticism).

I am very sorry but I should be skeptical about the Enlightenment, or Reason in this case - it may be of limited use elsewhere, but when dealing with Islamism, I cannot think of it as of use.

Shawn Klein said...

Hi Ajani,

I disagree on a lot of fronts here, but there is a something in what you say that is true: namely that the Enlightenment was incomplete. It had gaps. It didn't go far enough to defend and ground reason.

It is patently absurd, however, to claim that we(that is, the West) have not improved over the medieval society.