The Islamist Spring and the West’s Decline

An interview with Robert R. Reilly

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

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 [2006] Regensburg Lecture.

This man, who was from a very prominent Syrian family—deeply learned both in Islam and Western philosophy—knew 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 hope—or 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 law—without 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 theology—and what passes for philosophy and metaphysics and epistemology—to 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 instant—because 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 miracle—that 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 them—and 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 re-Hellenization.

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 philosophical—or anti-philosophical—thinking. 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 preconditions?

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 logos—if he is not reason—then 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, 10th, and 11th centuries—so 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, logic—otherwise you won’t understand the significance of what they’re saying.

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 is—except 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.”

…faith in your religion, your culture, and your civilization?

Yes—and 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 Muslims—it’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 reason—which 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 implosion.

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 country—like a version of Switzerland—with 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 gone.

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 the fastest?

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 destruction—and 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 else—particularly 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. 

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About Alvino-Mario Fantini 7 Articles
Alvino-Mario Fantini is Editor-in-Chief of "The European Conservative", journalist, and speechwriter. He and his wife live in Vienna, Austria