“A bastard kind of Christianity, but a living kind; with a heart-life in it;
not dead, chopping barren logic merely.”
Since September 11, 2001, there have been many articles and several books purporting to explain what led up to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Intelligence and military analyses, many of them useful, vie for attention with political tracts, many of them rather less useful—and most, bizarrely enough, tend to conclude that war against Saddam Hussein (a secular Arab nationalist, loathed by radical Muslims, who has never been linked to the September 11 attacks) is the only way to bring radical Muslims to heel. Such sage statesmanship has proved its utility before—notably in Vietnam.
Although the author, probably Britain’s best-known conservative intellectual, was clearly impelled to write by the events of that ghastly September morning, The West and the Rest is both better written and more ambitious than other works “inspired” by that day. Despite the book’s disconcertingly dismissive title and its modest length, this is a richly rewarding work, filled with profundity and felicitous phraseology, with occasional dips into near-poetry—“a landscape that had worn its Biblical aspect for centuries, with star-spangled nights above stone-built villages and historic cities.”
Scruton’s aim is to explain not just why the terrorists think and behave as they do but what it is about the West that differentiates it from “the rest”—notably Islam. And why does the West arouse such hatred in so many non-Western hearts? (We might also ask why the West arouses such indifference in so many Western hearts—a question Scruton has been considering for many years.)
Scruton handles these complex questions, and many others, with his customary intellectual rigor and occasional flashes of that dry wit that always lifts his work above the merely elegiac. At a recent dinner to mark the 20th anniversary of the Salisbury Review, the high Tory magazine he edited from its inception until last year, he commented memorably on the vagaries that had turned him “from a despised member of the lower orders to a despised spokesman for the upper class”—thus humorously encapsulating both his own life and the wider changes within society. One example of sere insight from The West and the Rest will suffice: “One may reasonably wonder at the miraculous correspondence between the ‘just society’ as it emerges from [John] Rawls’s thought-experiment and the received ideas of liberal New York.”
What makes The West and the Rest so distinctive is its essential evenhandedness. Maybe only an ultra-traditionalist observer could have been so objective or so sympathetic. Scruton writes more in sorrow than in anger—sorrow at the way in which two great human achievements have suffered at the hands of the wreckers. Many of the developments he deplores in the Middle East, he also deplores at home.
Scruton always tries to see things from an Islamic perspective—but also from ours. An unabashed Western patriot, he is clearly an admirer of Islamic civilization and maybe even slightly envious of Muslim certainty. Why blame Islam for rejecting Western ways, he asks in his preface,
when they, in their turn, involve a rejection of the idea on which Islam is founded—the idea of God’s immutable will, revealed once and for all to his Prophet, in the form of an unbreachable and unchangeable code of law?
Anyone who can write of the Meccan suras that “They are the great dawn-vision of an impassioned monotheist, from whose soul oppressive shadows are being chased away” is no narrow dogmatist. And Scruton clearly differentiates Islam as a pious way of life from the “armed doctrine” of Islamism—although he does note that the latter is “not an accidental product” of the religion.
Scruton waxes passionate about the effects that globalization has had on the Islamic world, including how modernist architecture, “by which local identities are razed and the earth re-shaped as a ubiquitous nowhere,” has outraged Muslim mores. He describes the Muslim city memorably as “a hive of private spaces, built cell on cell,” above whose roof-tops “the minarets point to God like outstretched fingers.” To people accustomed to these cityscapes, and this kind of relationship with Allah, skyscrapers (like the World Trade Center) can seem a kind of permanent blasphemy in glass and steel, fingers stuck up at Allah in defiance instead of raised in supplication.
Scruton also decries the waves of arrogant global legislation that arouse resentment and fury among those at whom the legislation is aimed: “a constant stream of unaccountable regulations issues from the meetings of the Western powers as though the rest had no choice but to accept them.” This kind of legislation is dreamed up and issued by adherents of what Samuel Huntington calls Western “universalism”: a belief that Western values are actually universal values—or would be, if only there were enough “education.” Caught up in hubristic arrogance, neo-conservatives and multiculturalists alike tend to fall into this tempting trap. (They fail to notice how condescending and perhaps even subconsciously “racist” such attitudes are—but that’s another story.)
Yet Roger Scruton is above all a man of the West, who understands Islam largely because he comprehends the plight of the West. At the risk of sounding glib, I could sum up the situation by saying that the Muslims have too much religion, whereas we now have too little.
Scruton believes that the Western and Islamic worldviews are essentially incompatible. As he puts it, “Western societies are governed by politics; the rest are ruled by power.” On the one hand, there is the resilient Western ideal stretching back to the Greeks and Romans—the nation-state with a corporate personality, a network of public institutions, a corpus of secular law (to Scruton, “perhaps the most important force in the emergence of European forms of sovereignty”), and a commitment to freedom of inquiry (which, paradoxically, leads to greater equilibrium).
These nation-states may have originally grown from tribes, but early tribal loyalties have been overlaid by later connections and obligations, until the Western model has emerged, “composed of communities held together by a political process, and by the rights and duties of the citizen as defined by that process.” When these connections and obligations are broken (by atavistic internal upheavals, or through loss of sovereignty to transnational institutions), a country gradually slides out of the Western orbit. Scruton gives the example of Zimbabwe, which he calls a Western country, now reverting to tribal type. (Surely, this is a bad example, as Zimbabwe was only exposed to Roman law and Christian doctrine for a relatively short time and can only ever have been superficially Western, at best.)
On the other hand, there is the Islamic world, run on nonnational, nonpublic lines and recognizing no ultimate authority but Allah, in whose name successive factions fight for control. “It is not possible” writes Scruton,
for a Muslim to believe that the conception of the good that is so clearly specified in . . . the Koran is to be excluded from the social contract . . . In Muslim eyes, this conception, and this alone, gives legitimacy to the political order: a thought which has the disturbing corollary that the political order is almost everywhere illegitimate, and nowhere more so than in the states where Islam is the official faith.
The Western social contract is about communities, united by feelings of affinity, willing to work together and make sacrifices under man-made laws. The Islamic world is made up of millions of people who believe that what does not come directly from Allah is invalid. The Western model is dynamic; the Islamic, static:
Those matters which, in Western societies, are resolved by negotiation, compromise and the laborious work of offices and committees are [in Islamic societies] the object of immovable and eternal decrees.
Between these two ideals, there can be no compromise, except insofar as individuals on either side can turn a blind eye to their neighbors’ foibles. This is more difficult for Muslims than for us, because of the technological prowess of the West, which has led to a proliferation of imagery that they find morally offensive, and because of the proselytizing nature both of their own faith and of our “religion” of international liberalism (or should that be libertinism?). The tides of history, which sought to impose the Western template on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, and the greater ease of communications and travel have brought these two previously self-contained worlds into collision. (Ironically, Muslim opponents of the West are only too happy to use West-ern technology and methods to spread their mayhem.) Only in Turkey has the Western model taken firm root; even there, however, the state needs to be propped up by the army—and the social costs have been high, with Turkey cut off from her own past and young people continually attracted to extreme ideologies, wheth-er Islamic, communist, or national socialist.
Occasionally, Scruton takes his argument about the fundamental significance of the nation-state too far. He says, for instance, that America is not under attack because of her support for Israel. Instead, Israel is under attack because of her close-ness to America—“for Israel is a nation-state established where no nation-state should be—a place where the only law should be the shari’a, and the only loyalty that of Islam.” Here, he may be too generous to Muslims, making their objection to Israel, and to Jews, sound more rational than it really is. Yes, there may be much dislike of Israel as a symbol of Western decadence, but there is also a strong tradition of naked hatred of Jews all across the Arab world. Recently, Egyptian state television produced a 14-part TV series based on the childish forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, and such books are never out of print in the Arab world.
Scruton may also be too generous to the West when he compares Western politicians favorably with Islamic politicians. For instance, he writes,
with the exception of delegates from personal states, those who turn up to UN meetings literally have no business being there. They are not the representatives of the people from whose territory they come, and if they speak for anyone it is for the party, faction, or tyrant who sent them.
Yet there is surely little evidence that the present British delegation to the Uni-ted Nations speaks for anyone except the Labour government, or that the U.S. delegation cares very much about the thoughts and feelings of Democratic voters. The vast majority of politicians have always thought mostly selfishly and in the short term. Earlier, Scruton seems to recognize this, in his dry observation that the legitimacy of the social contract “is endorsed by almost every Western politician, at least when out of office.”
The West and the Rest is divided into five chapters, with nine pages of notes and a detailed index. “The Social Contract” deals ably and comprehensively with the nature of Western societies. “Enlightenment, Citizenship, and Loyalty” examines citizenship and nationality and the effects of the Enlightenment on these vital concepts. Scruton attacks the deconstructionists who “owe their intellectual eminence . . . to their role in giving authority to the rejection of authority, and to their absolute commitment to the impossibility of absolute commitments,” leading to “a first-person plural of denial.” He also assails the postmodernists who claim that Western culture has “dressed up Western ways of thinking as though they had universal force” in order to further a specifically ethnic agenda. Yet, while the postmodernists are undoubtedly wrong to assert that Western imperial adventurism was all a racist conspiracy, Scruton arguably does not ascribe enough importance to the ethnic element within Western culture.
“Holy Law” looks at Islamic societies, with a useful and engrossing summary of the chief theological strands within Islam and potted histories of Islamic jurisprudence and such important religio-political movements as Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood. “Globalisation” analyzes how and why exported Western mores have come into radical conflict with the immovable mass of Islam. Finally, Scruton sums up his findings and ideas and makes several admittedly ambitious, but perfectly feasible, suggestions. The surest way of regaining control over our own destinies, he believes, is to retain the classical Western model of nation-states governed by secular law. Therefore, we should hold on to our respective national sovereignties; halt or reverse the expansion of international bodies like the United Nations, the European Union, and the World Trade Organization; rein in the international lawmakers and cut down on predatory litigation at home; place more controls on big business; be more respectful of tradition and local customs; tighten up on immigration (partly by scrapping the 1951 U.N. Convention on Refugees and Asylum); and encourage assimilation. Perhaps most ambitiously—and least realistically—we need to think about “our devotion to prosperity, and the habits of consumption that have led us to depend upon raw materials, such as oil, which cannot be obtained within our territory.”
There will be more Islamic terrorism. As Scruton observes, “because [Islamic terrorism’s] purpose is religious rather than political, the goal is incapable of realization.” Thanks to our technology and our tolerance, Westerners will be brought more and more often into brutal contact with Muslims’ “seething desire to punish.” It is not a question of if, but of when Muslim terrorists will attack other Western capital cities, probably starting with London, where—thanks to almost unbelievably foolish immigration policies, pursued over decades, in combination with state-sponsored multiculturalism and curbs on free speech—there exists a large and vital pool of potential support and resources. The argument, therefore, is likely to continue indefinitely, punctuated by violent action and (perhaps) reaction.
Whether this remarkable book will receive the attention it deserves is a different matter. The typical, defeatist “conservative” response was encapsulated in an astute but essentially despairing review in the Daily Telegraph on November 16, 2002: “With this mammoth, unrealistic wish list of things to get rid of, Scruton’s argument breaks down.” In other words, it is all too difficult, so we had better not even try. Of itself, The West and the Rest will not break through that barrier of laziness and fear, but it will undoubtedly help to give us the “credible alternative” we desperately need.
[The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, by Roger Scruton (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books) 187 pp., $19.95]
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