In this week’s New York Times Book Review Ayan Hirsi Ali reviews Lee Harris’s The Suicide of Reason: Radical Islam’s Threat to the West.
In the book, Ayaan Hirsi Ali explains,
Harris is pessimistic in a way that the Enlightenment thinkers were not. He takes a Darwinian view of the struggle between clashing cultures, criticizing the West for an ethos of selfishness, and he follows Hegel in asserting that where the interest of the individual collides with that of the state, it is the state that should prevail. This is why he attributes such strength to Islamic fanaticism. The collectivity of the umma elevates the communal interest above that of the individual believer. Each Muslim is a slave, first of God, then of the caliphate. Although Harris does not condone this extreme subversion of the self, still a note of admiration seems to creep into his descriptions of Islam’s fierce solidarity, its adherence to tradition and the willingness of individual Muslims to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the greater good.
But this is what she has to say,
I was not born in the West. I was raised with the code of Islam, and from birth I was indoctrinated into a tribal mind-set. Yet I have changed, I have adopted the values of the Enlightenment, and as a result I have to live with the rejection of my native clan as well as the Islamic tribe. Why have I done so? Because in a tribal society, life is cruel and terrible. And I am not alone. Muslims have been migrating to the West in droves for decades now. They are in search of a better life. Yet their tribal and cultural constraints have traveled with them. And the multiculturalism and moral relativism that reign in the West have accommodated this.
Harris is correct, I believe, that many Western leaders are terribly confused about the Islamic world. They are woefully uninformed and often unwilling to confront the tribal nature of Islam. The problem, however, is not too much reason but too little. Harris also fails to address the enemies of reason within the West: religion and the Romantic movement. It is out of rejection of religion that the Enlightenment emerged; Romanticism was a revolt against reason.
Both the Romantic movement and organized religion have contributed a great deal to the arts and to the spirituality of the Western mind, but they share a hostility to modernity. Moral and cultural relativism (and their popular manifestation, multiculturalism) are the hallmarks of the Romantics. To argue that reason is the mother of the current mess the West is in is to miss the major impact this movement has had, first in the West and perhaps even more profoundly outside the West, particularly in Muslim lands.
Thus, it is not reason that accommodates and encourages the persistent segregation and tribalism of immigrant Muslim populations in the West. It is Romanticism. Multiculturalism and moral relativism promote an idealization of tribal life and have shown themselves to be impervious to empirical criticism. My reasons for reproaching today’s Western leaders are different from Harris’s. I see them squandering a great and vital opportunity to compete with the agents of radical Islam for the minds of Muslims, especially those within their borders. But to do so, they must allow reason to prevail over sentiment.
She concludes by saying “while this conflict is undeniably a deadly struggle between cultures, it is individuals who will determine the outcome.”
Another individual who has spoken on reason is Pope Benedict, who created quite a stir in 2006 when he said, “Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature”.
This statement reflects a tradition that has come down for thousands of years, reflecting how reason itself is at war with the forces of chaos. Indeed, the story of civilization is the struggle of reason against chaos.
As it turns out, as I was working on this post Neoneocon also posted,
I believe what Harris may really be saying is that, in our emphasis on reason and tolerance, we must not forget to include a robust defense of our own culture and our own values. It is a balancing act; we don’t want to segue back into intolerance ourselves. But there is no other way to fight the forces of intolerance than to believe in and defend ourselves.
It all starts with the individual.