Thursday, May 06, 2004

Philosophy Doesn’t Matter
Alexander Marriott 6 May 2004


From President Bush to Ted Kennedy we hear the same refrain about Islamic terrorists; “These people have hijacked a peaceful religion. Islamic militants are a few radicals who do not represent Islam.” We are expected to believe that it is not the philosophy, the fundamental ideas and beliefs these people hold, that matters; it is merely a few misguided radicals. If we were not talking about religions, which the vast majority of people subscribe to, would this line of reasoning be valid or acceptable?

During the Cold War, could people have accepted the proposition that those in charge of the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, et al, were just a few misguided radicals who had hijacked a great belief system? Certainly those sympathetic to Communism would have bought this up immediately, and those people are still around. Whenever you hear, “Communism is good in theory, but doesn’t work in reality,” you are in the presence of such a person.

Another example would be to say that Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were radicals who did not represent Fascism. Or that Torquemada was a radical who did not represent Catholicism. The general idea is obvious with all of these examples. Those who claim that these people are “radicals distorting the true meaning of philosophy X,” are apologists for murderers, thugs, thieves, and butchers.

Of course, “Philosophy X” is religion in general, Islam in particular. To condemn Islam outright would be, not to contradict Christianity, but to contradict cultural relativism and religious “sensitivity.” The whole idea of other religions like Judaism and Christianity is contrary to Islam and were all of the adherents of the two former religions operating purely from their avowed beliefs, they would not hesitate to condemn all Muslims, as well as all Christians or all Jews. They cannot all be chosen or saved or enlightened people.

But the reason we do not see the launch of a new crusade is the same reason the West is not stuck in the pathetic level of development that plagues the Middle East. The West underwent a transformation that resulted in the rejection, mostly implicit, of the core ethics of religion, at least temporarily. The Renaissance, when the classical works of Greece and Rome reinvigorated Europe and the Enlightenment, when the philosophers of Europe built upon and improved the political philosophy of the Greco-Roman tradition and invented science as a disciplined body of knowledge. It was the rejection of Judeo-Christian ethics, of altruism, that propelled the West forward. Of course, explicitly many still proclaimed the superiority of altruism, but, beneath the lip service, the barriers to rational self-interest were dismantled and concern for secular affairs predominated. This never occurred in the Middle East. The closest that region came was at the turn of the last millennium.

But altruism in the West struck back under thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Jean Jacques Rousseau and political philosophies like Communism, socialism, and environmentalism. More obviously it came back in religious revivalism and the Great Awakenings during the nineteenth century. Both the religious and secular altruism have converged in modern politics, particularly over this issue of claiming that Islamic terrorists are distorting a “peaceful” religion. Bush is religious, but does not condemn Islam because of secular notions of relativity and multiculturalism. His religion, by itself, would cause Bush to condemn Muslims as their clerics condemn Jews and the West. But the secular incarnation of altruism, born of the language of the enlightenment to combat it, directs Bush to respect all altruism and altruistic belief systems and to discard the warlike implications of religions.

Operating under these two influences Bush cannot rationally condemn an opposing philosophy, mainly because, if he sat down to consciously compare his own beliefs and theirs, he would discover many similarities. But Bush cannot escape the fact that he’s in a country that represents the greatest achievement of political thought in human history, and when it is attacked he responds because he is at least certain that his country is good, even though his definition of good is equal to altruism.

However, the inability of all politicians to properly identify the philosophy of America’s enemies, for whatever reason, is highly dangerous. It is what was directly responsible for the nonchalant attitudes of American leaders towards terrorists for fifty years. Given that Bush is considered to be the arch-hawk on the political scene, it does not bode well should he lose the upcoming election to a man who is not even certain we are at war.

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