Muslim worshipers attend Friday prayers during the holy month of Ramadan at the Data Darbar mosque in Lahore, Pakistan, Aug. 2. (CNS photo/Mohsin Raza, Reuters)
Robert R. Reilly is a senior
fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He has taught at the National
Defense University and has written for the Wall Street Journal, National
Review, Claremont Review of Books, and the Washington Post. He has
served in the White House as Special Assistant to the President (1983-85) and
was Senior Advisor for Information Strategy in the Office of the Secretary of
Defense (2002-06). He is a former director of the Voice of America and is a
member of the board of the Middle East Media Research Institute. Mr. Reilly is
the author of Surprised by Beauty:
A Listener’s Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music (2002). His most recent book, The
Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern
Islamist Crisis, was published
by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 2010.
Alvino-Mario Fantini: You recently wrote a best-selling
book entitled The Closing of the Muslim
Mind, which raises the question: How do we re-open the Muslim mind?
Robert R. Reilly: I had the opportunity
of asking one of the premier intellectual Muslim reformers the question: “If I
could give you all the resources you would need, personnel and money, and a
20-year period, tell me what you would do to turn around the Muslim world.” And
he paused and thought for a minute, and then he said, “I would re-Hellenize
it.” And that, of course, is the message in Pope Benedict XVI’s 
This man, who was from a very prominent Syrian
familydeeply learned both in Islam and Western philosophyknew exactly the
nature of the problem and there are any number of other Muslim intellectuals
like him who do as well. The problem is they’re mostly living in exile because
it’s too dangerous for them to propose doing that in their own societies.
What is your assessment of the so-called Arab Spring?
Does it offer any hopeor reasons to worry?
I was just discussing this with an Egyptian the other
evening…and he’s very optimistic about the Arab Spring. I was very pessimistic
precisely because it doesn’t seem that the culture in the Middle East is going
to allow for the development of genuine democratic constitutional rule,
precisely because it hasn’t been re-Hellenized, precisely because it has not
restored the integrity of reason, precisely because majority Sunni Islam still
denies the existence of natural lawwithout which it is impossible to develop
sound constitutional theory. As I expressed to him, the problem is a deformed
theology that has produced a dysfunctional culture.
None of the intellectual currents in the Middle East are
headed in the right direction. They are headed in the Islamist direction. This
is an “Islamist Spring.” The Muslim Brotherhood’s offshoots have so far either
won these elections or gained a large plurality in them. The signs are not
good. But they are perfectly logical in terms of the principles on which these
Muslim Brotherhood organizations operate. So they’re headed backwards.
Backwards is where they want to go.
As the Arab Spring has toppled regimes in the region, it
has created a situation of instability and great uncertainty in many countries.
There is a power vacuum slowly being filled by new groups. What’s coming next?
Ideas have consequences and you have to pay attention to
the ideas of these people. What these new groups have done for a period of 84
years since the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 is develop a highly
disciplined, Leninist cadre that has succeeded in taking over the network of
mosques and dominating the teaching of Islam in their country. It is to their
ideas that we must look for a sign of what the future is going to be like since
they’re the beneficiaries of the Arab Spring. They are the single best
organized element of society to take advantage of it.
People did not notice the size of the crowd in Tahrir
Square [in February 2011] when Yusef al-Qaradawi was allowed back after 30
years of exile. He was the most popular preacher in the Muslim world. He was
greeted by several million people in Tahrir Square. He had a military escort.
That’s what’s really happening in Egypt. The strength of the Muslim Brotherhood
from years of effort is now manifest.
There was a very interesting statement made by the
Islamist Azzam Tamimi [director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought
in London]. What he said is: What you have to understand is that the future is
a matter of who is Islamist and who is more Islamist, not between who is
Islamist and who is secular. The secular liberals are out of it. They don’t
have any possibility of gaining any kind of political traction because they
don’t have any organization, they don’t have any effective parties. … We know
of the profound weakness of these liberal secular forces, not just in Egypt but
in most of these countries. So this is a very dangerous time.
How did you become interested in learning more about
Islamic thought? And what have you learned?
My background really was in the Cold War and I am a student
of political philosophy. Most of that was applied to 19th and 20th century
Western ideologies. It was only after 9/11 that I wondered whether what I knew
could apply to the situation we were facing.
So for more than 10 years now I have been studying
mainly Muslim theologyand what passes for philosophy and metaphysics and
epistemologyto try to get to the source of why things have gone so wrong
there. And I traced it back to an enormous intellectual drama in the ninth century in Baghdad
between those who wished to give primacy to reason and those who wished to give
primacy to pure will and power. So you had, on one side, the first theological
school in Islam that said, “God is rationality and justice,” and the other side
which said: “No, God is pure will and power. Rationality has nothing to do with
Him and whatever He does is incomprehensible to us and He cannot be confined to
what is thought to be reasonable or unreasonable.”
You’ve talked about Islamic metaphysics, which conceives
of the movement of an object across a desk as a process in which that object is
being destroyed and reconstituted a million times every second. Is this not in
direct contradiction to the Greco-Roman or Western understanding of reality?
Yes, absolutely, because it’s a denial of natural law
and because of this almost perverse concentration on God’s omnipotence. The
theological school in Sunni Islam called Ash’arism, which is the majority
theological school, even today says that God is the first and only cause of
everything and there cannot be secondary causes (such as natural law) because
that would be a challenge to God’s omnipotence. So for God to be omnipotent,
nothing else can be even so much as potent. Therefore, gravity does not make
the rock fall; God does. Fire doesn’t burn cotton; God does. There is,
therefore, no cause and effect in the natural world. This teaching has
destroyed the Sunni Muslim world.
And their metaphysics that you referred to is: How do
they explain how things are constituted if they have no essence or a nature
(which they deny)? They are constituted by these time/space atoms which God, in
an instant, agglomerates into certain shapes or things like a plant or a tree
or a person. And why that tree should remain a tree in the following instant
has absolutely nothing to doing with having the nature of a tree; it has no
nature. It is only for reasons we will never know that God wishes to
reconstitute it as a tree in the next instantbecause things are constantly
passing into and out of existence, and they seem to be the same thing; but they
are not. Everything is made new almost instantaneously.
This, of course, means everything is miraculous. All
nature is miraculous and all miracles are natural, as one thinker put it. The
problem with this is that if everything is miraculous, it becomes
incomprehensible. That’s the quality of a miraclethat it is temporary
suspension of natural law for which you can give no account.
But if everything is that way, then you can’t give
account of anything. And this is how world escapes the Islamists and why things
become incomprehensible to themand why they become subject to the wildest and
most absurd conspiracy theories.
And you can’t dialogue with such an ideology. Is there
any response that can be made to that way of thinking?
Even though this bizarre metaphysics is asserted, it
doesn’t abolish reality; reality is still there, even if they are incapable of
recognizing it as it is. So, you still have reality on your side. If somebody
wishes to cook their meal, they still have to light the stove, even though they
deny the relationship between lighting the match and the gas igniting.
In fact, as the denial of reality is getting more
profound, the sharper the crisis [within Islam] becomes. Through the profusion
of these satellite channels throughout the Middle East, they’re having the West
shoved in their faces on a daily basis and the sense of their own inferiority
in comparison becomes more acute.
How do they respond to this? They respond by becoming
even more Islamist. Their only recourse is their religion and therefore they
become more extreme in it. That’s not the direction in which things need to go
for things to improve there. It’s in the opposite direction of a
This re-Hellenization would benefit not just Islam but
the West as well.
As the Pope’s Regensburg Lecture put it, the West needs
to re-Hellenize itself because it, too, has been denying the integrity of
reason though moral relativism and other such philosophicalor anti-philosophicalthinking.
So the integrity of reason needs to be restored within the West. But our memory
of it is much more recent than in Islam; Islam has a much harder job to do.
Are some Muslims aware of the limitations and dangers of
the current Islamist approach?
The Muslims with whom I talk and work have re-Hellenized
themselves. They are aware of the Hellenic past of their own faith. … You can’t
have this idea of this tyrannical God and have accountable constitutional
government. You have some people who realize the problem here is not
sociological, economic, or psychological; it’s theological and it has to be
addressed at the level at which it exists.
The other problem in Islam is in its revelation. I would
say the foundation of our civilization is in the [Book of] Genesis: that we are
made in the image and likeness of God. That image and likeness is in our
rationality and our free will, and I believe that that revelation, and the
theology that developed from it, is what allowed the notion of popular sovereignty
to be developed in the West. It is not against that theology to say: “man is
sovereign.” In Islam, sovereignty belongs to God alone. Man is not sovereign
because he is not made in the image and likeness of God and to suggest that he
is is blasphemy.
…for which the punishment is death?
It can be, in a Sharia state. So if man is not
sovereign, how is he going to exercise sovereignty? And if the mind is
incapable of knowing good and evil from moral philosophy because there is
nothing to be known, because things have no nature and are therefore neither
good nor evil in themselves, [it is only because] God says so. [In Islam,] you
can only know right and wrong through revelation, through divine law, and it’s
only divine law that has legitimacy. Human law has no legitimacy, strictly
speaking, in this dominant theological school. So these are enormous barriers.
It’s easy to understand the emotion of this situation
when you so wish for these people genuine freedom and constitutional rule. Who
would not wish that for them? But then you see statistics from Pew Research
that something like 84 percent of the people in Egypt believe apostasy should
be punished with death. How can you have a democracy in a culture that denies
freedom of conscience? And how many people in Egypt would agree that all people
are created equal, including men and women and Muslims and non-Muslims, to say
nothing of Muslims and Jews? The question answers itself. So the preconditions
for democratic development in their own society are simply not present.
Are there specific cultural and theological
Absolutely. I was asked: “Is Catholicism compatible with
democracy? How can you tell whether a religion is compatible with democratic
constitutional development or not?” I think the answer is very simple but very
profound: In that religion, is God logos (reason) or isn’t he? Is reason
part of God’s essence and not simply an attribute? If He is logos, then
you can develop such a constitutional theory. In fact, it was in the medieval
Catholic Church that constitutional theory developed. If God is not logosif
he is not reasonthen you can’t because there’s no foundation in your theology
that would allow for that development.
That’s the whole point of the Pope’s Regensburg Lecture:
Behaving unreasonably is wrong because it’s against God. That can only be true
if God is reason. If he’s not reason, then acting unreasonably is not wrong.
How do you get this message across to most people,
whether in America or in Europe?
I tried by writing a book, but it’s a difficult book and
you need some background in order to understand it. My experience in speaking
around the United States and in Europe is that this is all news to most
audiences. Almost without exception they have never heard this before, so
they’re startled and at some point they wonder: “Is this guy crazy? Could this
really be true?” And that’s why in the book I put so much from Muslim documents
from the ninth,
and 11th centuriesso
you can see again and again and again that this is a consistent teaching at the
heart of their theology.
This is something that within the West people find very
hard to understand: How anyone could believe such a thing? And until you
understand the theology from which it comes, you can’t. The problem is you
can’t understand their writings unless you have some background in theology, epistemology,
philosophy, logicotherwise you won’t understand the significance of what
It’s like the “Common Word” document [in 2007] that the
Muslim intellectuals and Imams addressed to the Pope and other Christian
leaders. If you don’t know anything about Islam and you read this document, you
would think: “Well, this is a very warm, inviting approach to us for dialogue.”
But if you understand…the mental universe in which they live you understand
that some of the words there do not mean what you think they mean. You have to
decode this material to understand what’s really being said. That’s hard. I
couldn’t have done this without 10 years of study.
But many people argue that Islam is a religion of peace?
Well it isexcept when it’s not. And anyone who
examines its history is exceedingly naïve to say that. Does it have peaceful
elements? Certainly it does. Does it have bellicose part to it? Yes. That’s how
they conquered most of the world in the seventh,
eighth, and ninth centuries,
and more recently in other jihad conquests.
You’ve spoken many times in Europe. What is your
assessment, based on your conversations with people, about how Europe is doing?
I recall an experience from several years ago at a
seminar with mostly European economists. I was asked to talk about this, and
the people there sort of went into a state of shock when I was finished
speaking and said: “This is worse than we thought it was!” They asked: “What
should we do?” And I said: “The first thing you should do is recover your own
…faith in your religion, your culture, and your
Yesand I think in that order because what you’re
confronted with here is another faith [Islam] and if you don’t have one, you’re
not in a very good situation to engage or defend. So the first thing you should
do is recover your faith. That is, of course, the enormous problem in Europe
today: the loss of faith.
I go to Europe fairly often and most of my education was
oriented toward Europe, and I love it; but the problem in a place like Great
Britain today is not the number of Muslimsit’s a very small portion of the
population, it shouldn’t be a problem. The only reason it is a problem is that
there is nothing left to assimilate into. So if you’ve caved into cultural
relativism, which is at the base of multiculturalism, there is nothing left to
assimilate into. And into that vacuum is their insistence on living by their
own rules and installing Sharia rule in their own areas.
Islamists are not the problem; we’re the problem. Were
we still a healthy culture, this wouldn’t be a problem. We need to recover some
sense of ourselves based upon our faith; and it is our faith that ultimately
undergirds the integrity of reasonwhich Benedict XVI is the greatest champion
of in the world today.
…because they would be absorbed by the broader culture?
Or not allowed. One or the other. This crisis of
self-confidence in the West is due to the disintegration of belief, which leads
to this lack of will. So, Islam shouldn’t be a problem.
The Middle East is a highly dysfunctional place and,
yes, there can be terrorist threats; but does anyone really think they are
going to reconstitute the Caliphate? No. The level of competence to undertake
anything at that level is simply not there. Islam is in a profound crisis and
what we may be observing, really, is a dying culture or civilization. And
civilizations don’t necessarily die peacefully.
Isn’t the West dying, too? Consider Europe’s demographic
My wife is from Spain and she came from a family of nine
children. Each branch of the family on both sides came from comparably large
families. Now her peers back in Spain are sort of shocked that she has four
children because none of them have more than one or two. So in the space of
basically a generation, or a generation and a half, the demographics of Spain
have collapsed as they have in Italy and most of Europe.
I go to Slovenia for a conference mostly every year and
here is this cute little countrylike a version of Switzerlandwith only a
million people, and they’re disappearing because they’re way below the
replacement level. So, the will to even generate, to sustain, to pass on, is
It’s staggering to contemplate this willful
self-dissolution of yourself and your culture and your civilization.
Perhaps it’s a question of which civilization declines
Well, you know that was the story during the Cold War,
too. It was kind of a competitive decay. As it turns out, the Soviet Union
decayed faster than we did, plus we had that temporary resuscitation under
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and the great John Paul II that enabled us
to create sufficient pressure on that evil empire that it collapsed inwardly
without a major world war. So we’re in competitive decline again, except in
this case the Muslim world has no real means of challenge here other than
terrorism or weapons of mass destructionand their possession of such a
significant portion of the world’s energy supply.
So, the first thing that is necessary is to sort of
regain control of our own “oxygen supply.” If someone else can control your
oxygen supply, you’re dependent on them and you basically have to do what they
tell you to do. Oil is the oxygen of the industrialized world and we have the
opportunity now in the United States to dramatically transform that because of
the enormous reserves that have been discovered here, particularly of natural
gas that can fuel a great deal of our industry and growing oil reserves.
Obviously, the Obama Administration is not interested in
that, but the less we are dependent on the Middle East, the better for us and
for everyone elseparticularly in respect to Saudi Arabia, which has the single
most retrograde form of Islam that exists and which has out-spent the United
States by tens of billions of dollars on its form of public diplomacy in
spreading the Wahabi retrograde form of Islam.
If you’re hoping for a re-Hellenization of the Muslim
mind, give up all hope when you confront the Wahabi strain. It is the single
most anti-rational form of Islam.
This interview originally appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of The European Conservative.