Why the West Struggles to Comprehend and Respond to Islamic Terrorism

Paris, November 2015. Photo by Roberto Maldeno, CC-BY-NC-ND

Paris, November 2015. Photo by Roberto Maldeno, CC-BY-NC-ND

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age is a landmark study of the process of secularization in the West from the late Middle Ages to the present day. Taylor focuses on the process by which we went from a world in the year 1500 in which it was impossible not to believe in God to today’s world in which unbelief is one valid choice among many.

As I noted in a previous post, Taylor’s goal is to rebut what he calls the subtraction narrative. In the subtraction view, modern science (especially Darwin) undermined the historicity of the Biblical narratives. And new scholarship (such as Higher Criticism) called into question the Biblical texts themselves. This process chipped away at belief until what was left is the world we know today. Our world was created by simply subtracting superstition and falsehood.

Taylor does not deny the importance of subtraction. But he argues that secularization didn’t just involve taking things away. It also included replacing them with new things, things that had to be created by our culture. Among those new things were the “buffered self” and the “Modern Moral Order.”

I addressed the buffered self in my post on why the new urban enthusiasm is destined to fade. Today I want to address some of the implications of the Modern Moral Order, in particular how our concept of it handicaps our efforts to understand and address the challenge of Islamic terrorism.

First, I want to be clear that other than direct quotes from Taylor himself, this is my analysis. He carefully steered clear of any analysis of terrorism apart from some small critiques of the West’s behavior and “the bellicose, hegemony-loving parts of US society which President Bush speaks to.” So this post is my application of Taylor’s ideas, not his take directly.

What is the Modern Moral Order? It is our conception of modern liberal society. It sees the individual citizen as the building block of society, views humans as inherently rational and social, and envisions that these individuals cooperate in a society of mutual benefit (capitalism, basically). The social relations in this mutual benefit society are rationally constructed, and thus subject to conscious change. This is completely unlike, for example, the feudal order, in which social relations were seen as a reflection of cosmic order and thus unchangeable. Rational individuals in this system also apprehend through their examination of the world some common concepts of natural law, which we inherit from people like Locke via such formulations as “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”  This gives us our notion of rights, and legitimate authority rooted in the consent of the governed, social contract theory, etc.

These concepts are experienced by us through their embedding in such institutions as the economy, the public sphere, and the the practices and outlook of democratic governance.

Here is but one quote from Taylor describing part of this:

The order of mutual benefit is an ideal to be constructed. It serves as a guide for those who want to establish a stable peace, and then remake society to bring it closer to its norms. The proponents of the theory already see themselves as agents who through disengaged, disciplined action can reform their own lives, as well as the larger social order. They are buffered, disciplined selves. Free agency is central to their self-understanding. The emphasis on rights, and the primacy of freedom among them, does just stem from the principle that society should exist for the sake of its members; it also reflects the holders’ sense of their own agency, and of the situation which that agency normatively demands in the world, viz., freedom.

We don’t all hold to these ideas in their historic form, but this milieu of thought obviously shapes how all of us perceive the world and the way it should be.

The key point in all this is that, for all its pretensions of rationally examining the world, the Modern Moral Order is a creation of western culture over the last few hundred years. Unlike e=mc2, it was not just out there waiting to be discovered as the subtraction narrative might lead us to believe.

Because of this, the subtraction idea creates a dangerously naive view that all cultures are on a train heading to the same Modern Moral Order destination. We might be at different stations along the route, but we are all heading to the same place. There’s a certain “end of history” logic to it. The idea is that, after Darwin, etc. do their work, everyone will eventually get to the same place we are (or perhaps to further evolved version of where we are, once we ourselves purge remaining retrograde notions from our culture).

But this simply isn’t true. In particular, there’s no reason to assume that Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultures, of which a portion of Islam is a constituent part, will eventually adopt Western points of views on these matters.

Unfortunately, most of our dealings with Islamic terrorism seem to make the assumption that they will, or even already share it. Our rhetoric is based on an appeal to the Modern Moral Order on the assumption that, once we explain some aspect of it to the person in question who then apprehends it, it will be seen as self-evidently true.

As one classic example, consider the kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. In a column in the Independent (UK) called “Please release my friend Daniel Pearl,” Robert Fisk wrote:

The Hizbollah, around which these kidnap groups floated like satellites, now acknowledges that hostage-taking was a major blunder, an own goal of the worst kind, quite apart from the inhumanity of imprisoning the innocent and threatening their lives. If Israel could not persuade the United States to put the Hizbollah on America’s “terrorist” list, the kidnappings would have done the trick. The argument that national resistance should not be confused with “terrorism” was never heard – because the journalists who should have reported it were either locked up or running away.

Daniel’s kidnappers are now making an identical error. They gave all American journalists until midnight last night to leave Pakistan, the best way of ensuring that the suffering of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, the chaotic, lawless Afghanistan which has emerged from America’s victory, the crisis in Kashmir and the plight of Pakistan’s millions of poor goes unrecorded, and all for a series of demands that will never be met by the United States.

Pearl’s kidnappers, as we know, instead cut off Daniel Pearl’s head and distributed a gruesome video of it.

Fisk’s column reveals the subtraction narrative in action. He is, in effect, appealing to the kidnappers based on the idea of enlightened self-interest, a Modern Moral Order concept. He believes that, as individuals who are as rational as he is and thus can perceive the same logic in the world he does, that if he can only explain to the kidnappers that their actions were counter-productive, in the way Fisk sees it based on a Western MMO view, they would release Pearl as the only rational thing to do. Alas, this was not the case.

We see the same in the response to the recent massacres in Paris. There’s a great difficulty in understanding the “why” of this, when trying to judge by our own standards of rationality. It seems so stupid. What could they possibly hope to gain by doing it? After all, there’s no way this would topple the government of France. Previous attacks in New York, London, and Madrid did not ultimately undermine the economy or social structures in those cities. And even the most pacifistic of politicians is going to be forced to do something if you slaughter over a hundred people in cafes and at rock concerts in his country.

Hence the conclusion reached by some that the attacks must have been designed to provoke a backlash against Muslims. The only interpretation that possibly makes sense to us is that this attack was some highly sophisticated piece of strategy in which the attacks were in effect a gigantic troll.

Our subtraction narrative based assumption that the Modern Moral Order is metaphysically real makes it impossible to take seriously the motivations underlying these terrorist acts.  We can’t make sense of people’s actions apart from the Modern Moral Order, or appeals to it.  For all our belief in our rationality, our moral reasoning only operates as it does because of the assumptions of the Modern Moral Order.

What’s more, not only do these societies not subscribe to the Modern Moral Order now, there’s no reason to believe they will simply adopt it on their own once science does its thing. In the closest passage to directly bearing on this topic, Taylor acknowledges as much, saying:

In societies where the general equilibrium point is firmly within immanence [e.g., ours], where many people even have trouble understanding how a sane person could believe in God, the dominant [subtraction based] secularization narrative, which tends to blame our religious past for many of the woes of the world, will become less plausible over time. This will happen in part because it will be clear that other societies are not following suit, and thus this master narrative isn’t about universal humanity; and also because many of the ills for which “religion” was supposedly responsible aren’t going away. Of course, the plausibility of the narrative can be sustained by stigmatizing the religious societies as hostile to modern values, as many Europeans tend to do today with the United States; and even more with “Islam”. But unless we sink to a real level of “clash of civilizations”, this way of lending plausibility to the secularization narrative will give out sooner or late.

Until we understand and accept the reality that the Modern Moral Order is a cultural product of the West, not an objective reality, and that other cultures will not just end up there eventually, we will continue to struggle to deal with terrorism and other such problems.

The answer, as Taylor suggests, is not to denounce Islam as a religion as fundamentally incompatible with the Modern Moral Order. There’s every reason to believe that Islam can, certainly in the West itself, be compatible with it. We have multiple examples in the cases of Judaism and Christianity of religions that began in previous societal orders and were successfully reconstituted (albeit in an attenuated form) inside the Modern Moral Order. So why not Islam too?

But we can’t just assume it will happen. Those societies will have to go through their own process of change just as we did. It may well be that they find the Moral Modern Order appealing enough to adopt, just as they do modern science, technology, medicine, etc. But regardless of where they end up, they will need to go through a process of addition as well as subtraction.

For us, the challenge is to take our multicultural rhetoric seriously and engage with these societies as separate cultures as fully formed as our own, and that in many respects have worldviews and rationales that are alien to our own. In that way we can find a way to respond to them based in actual understanding, which we clearly don’t have right now.  While they may never fully adopt our Western cultural ideas, perhaps there is a path to co-existence to be found.

I don’t think it’s very likely we will do that, however. Because to do so would require admitting that our own Modern Moral Order is a cultural construct. To do that would be to acknowledge that in a secular age, statements like “all men are created equal” are fictions, or illusions as Freud might say. They may be useful fictions we all very much want to believe. But they are fictions nevertheless. They certainly aren’t what Darwin teaches.

I believe that we will deny that the Modern Moral Order is a useful fiction at almost any cost. As Freud said in another context, “They are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind. The secret of their strength lies in the strength of those wishes.” This negates my call for a higher level multiculturalism and instead renders multiculturalism itself something that exists inside of the Western Modern Moral Order, which as a whole is assumed to be a metaphysical reality all cultures of course subscribe to, or will someday soon.

If I am right, then we will continue to struggle not just with Islamic terrorism, but in all of our major interactions with non-Western cultures. Ironically, many of those who most fervently reject the idea of a “clash of civilizations” thus perpetuate the lack of understanding that all but ensures it.

from Aaron M. Renn


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