Originally published in USA Today.
There is more to the current turbulence in the Middle East than the Arab grievances against Israel. Behind it is a broader intellectual critique of America and the West that is widely shared — and a more potent fuel for terrorism than just the Israeli issue.
So far, the U.S. military response to Sept. 11′s physical attacks has been quite adequate. But our intellectual response to the terrorists’ assault on America’s principle of freedom has been weak. This matters because shutting down terrorist camps is not enough. We must stop the “jihad factories,” the mosques and educational institutions turning out thousands of aspiring suicide bombers. We cannot kill them all; we must change their minds.
America, however, is making few converts in the Muslim world, as recent Gallup polling there underscored. It has not effectively answered the strongest Islamic critique of our society: that the freedom we value so greatly is not life’s highest goal.
Americans try to defend their society by appealing to shared principles. They say the United States is a free society, or a prosperous one, or a pluralistic culture, or a nation of equal rights. The most intelligent Islamic critics acknowledge all of this — but dismiss it as worthless triviality.
Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb, a leading theoretician of Islamic fundamentalism who has been called “the brains behind Osama bin Laden,” argued in his books that the West is a society based on freedom, while the Islamic world is based on virtue.
He argued: Look at how badly the West uses freedom — the materialism, triviality, vulgarity and promiscuity. Islamic societies may be poor, Qutb said, but they try to follow God’s will. Islamic laws are based on divine law, higher than any human law. Virtue, Qutb insisted, is ultimately a higher principle than freedom.
The classical philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, would have agreed that virtue, not freedom, is a good society’s ultimate goal. And they would be right.
Free will allows evil
To answer the Islamic argument against America on its own terms, we first must concede that in a free society freedom will often be used badly. Freedom, by definition, includes freedom to do good or evil, to act nobly or basely. We should not be surprised that there is quite a bit of vice, licentiousness and vulgarity in a free society. Given humanity’s warped timber, freedom will include expressions of human weaknesses.
But freedom also brings out the best. The millions of Americans living decent, praiseworthy lives deserve our highest admiration: They opt for good when good is not the only choice, giving their virtue a special luster. A free society doesn’t guarantee virtue any more than it guarantees happiness. But it allows the pursuit of both, a pursuit more meaningful because success is uncertain; it requires personal effort.
Force undermines morality
By contrast, the authoritarian society that Islamic fundamentalists advocate undermines the possibility of virtue. If the supply of virtue is insufficient in free societies, it is almost non-existent in Islamic societies, because coerced virtues are not virtues at all.
Consider a woman required to wear a veil. There is no virtue here, for she is being forced. Compulsion only produces the outward semblance of virtue.
Indeed, once the reins of coercion are released, as they were for the terrorists living in the USA, human nature’s worst impulses break loose. The deeply religious terrorists spent their last days in bars and strip joints sampling the licentious lifestyle they were about to strike out against.
In theocratic societies such as Iran, the absence of freedom signals the absence of virtue. This is the argument Americans should make to the Islamic world.
Muslims would be receptive to it. Islam respects the autonomy of the individual soul. Salvation, for Muslims no less than for Jews and Christians, is based on the soul freely choosing to follow God. We can make the case to Muslims that freedom is a gift from God, not simply a secular invention. And because freedom is the necessary pre-condition for virtue, we can assert that our free society is not simply richer, more varied and more tolerant; it is also morally superior to fundamentalists’ version of Islamic society.
Dinesh D’Souza’s newest book is What’s So Great About America. He is the Rishwain Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. You can also read this article on the USA Today website here.