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Reilly: Well, there are tons of statistics put out by the UN Arab Human Development reports, all written by Arab scholars, by the way. In brief, but for sub-Saharan Africa, the 300 million people in the Arab world would be at the bottom of every measure of human progress – education, literacy, health care, productivity, GDP, patents, etc. Original scientific research is essentially dead. The effort of science is to discover nature’s laws. The teaching that these laws do not, in fact, exist (for theological reasons) is an obvious discouragement to the scientific enterprise.
Also, it is very revealing that Spain translates almost as many books in a single year as the Arab world has translated in the last thousand years. What would Caliph al-Ma’mun, who created the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in 830 A.D. to translate books, think of the state of the Arabic world today? He would be appalled.
Sometime anecdotes tell as much or more than the statistics, especially about the effects of the denial of secondary causality on even the most practical aspects of daily life. For instance, former British Islamist Ed Husain relates that “Hizb ut-Tahrir [an organization dedicated to the restoration of the caliphate] believed that all natural events were acts of God (though in some actions man could exercise free will), hence insurance polices were haram . . . Hizb members could not insure their cars.” Likewise, the use of seatbelts is considered presumptuous. If one’s allotted time has arrived, the seatbelt is superfluous. If it has not, it is unnecessary. One must realize that the phrase “in shā Allah [God willing]” is not simply a polite social convention, but a theological doctrine.
Those involved in training Middle Eastern military forces have encountered a lackadaisical attitude to weapon maintenance and sharp-shooting. If God wants the bullet to hit the target, it will and, if He does not, it will not. It has little to do with human agency or skills obtained by discipline and practice. As the Qur’anic verse states: “When you shot it was not you who shot but God.” (8:17)
A Kurdish acquaintance told me that he went on the Hajj with a devout friend who was very much taken by the Ash’arite teaching of God as the only cause. At the Ka’ba under the hot Saudi sun, his friend touched the black stone, which was cool. See, he said, this is God’s direct miraculous action; how else could this stone be so cool in this heat? My Kurdish acquaintance looked around until he found stairs descending to a refrigeration unit. He then took his friend down to see it, and explained to him, “This is why the stone is cool.” His friend’s reaction to this lesson was outrage. Rational knowledge was a threat to his religious certainty. The refrigeration unit, a product of rational knowledge, was an assault on his theology.
FP: Why is the West, aside from some few and brave thinkers, so blind in confronting the Islamist crisis?
Reilly: Self-delusion is one problem and ignorance is another. Many in the secular West find it hard to believe that anyone takes religion seriously anymore. Since they have lost their faith, they don’t have the ability to comprehend the terms of faith in anyone else’s life. In fact, their incomprehension, their obliviousness to the sacred, is one of the things that inflames Islam against the West.
We are essentially facing a theological problem and a profound spiritual disorder. People ignorant of theology are unable to recognize the nature of the problem. They want to create another economic development program in the Middle East, as if that will solve it. This is delusional and a total waste. The problem needs to be addressed at the level at which it exists, not by sociologists or psychiatrists.
FP: What hope is there that some kind of “moderate” Islam can ever emerge?
Reilly: I suppose you could say that there is always hope where there is prayer. So we had better start praying.
At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century there was far more intellectual ferment for reconciling Islam and modern science, for finding ways to adopt the best of the West to the Muslim world. These efforts largely failed. Things are now likely to get worse, not better.
The intellectual impetus in the Muslim world is not with those who see the need to reopen the foreclosed questions from the ninth century as to who God is and what his relationship to reason is. (There are such Muslim thinkers but they get no support from us.) It is with those who wish to return to the seventh century and replicate the feats of the Companions of the Prophet in creating the greatest empire the world had seen up to that point. The worse things get in the Muslim world, the more support these jihadists receive because they provide an explanation and a program that can be easily understood by those who deeply feel the grievances and humiliation of their situation.
It is not inevitable that the Islamists should succeed, except in the absence of any strategy to counter them. Muslim leaders like the former president of Indonesia, the late Abdurrahman Wahid, the spiritual head of the largest Muslim organization in the world, Nahdlatul Ulama, have called for a counter-strategy that would include offering “a compelling alternative vision of Islam, one that banishes the fanatical ideology of hatred to the darkness from which it emerged.” Wahid advocated a partnership with the non-Muslim world in a massively resourced effort to uphold human dignity, freedom of conscience, religious freedom, and the benefits of modernity before the juggernaut of Islamist ideology swamps the Muslim world. It was a compelling summons. It has yet to be answered.
There is another way to state this at its heart. The Arab Muslim world reached its apogee when it was at its most Hellenized, i.e. under the influence of Greek philosophy. It then underwent a process of dehellenization, a divorce from reason and the extirpation of philosophy. Its path to recovery must be in these same terms – a rehellenization, a restoration of the status or reason and a return to philosophy. Is that possible? As a twentieth century Moroccan Muslim thinker put it, either the future of Islam will be Aristotelian, or it will not be.
I think the general theme is how a deformed theology produced a dysfunctional culture.
FP: Robert R. Reilly, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
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