James Burnham on Militant Islam and the Clash of Civilizations

The price of failing to acknowledge the spiritual inspiration of one's enemies.

kaabaMore than forty years ago, in a little-remembered column in National Review, James Burnham, the former Trotskyist turned Cold War analyst, focused his insightful gaze upon the rise of radical Islam and the threat it posed to the world. The genesis of the column, which appeared in the November 8, 1974 issue of the magazine, was Arab use of the oil weapon, but Burnham sensed larger forces—religious, ideological, demographic, and geopolitical—at work.

“Islam,” he wrote in words that today might result in death threats or worse, “is a militant religion in the earthly as well as the spiritual sense.” According to the Koran, Burnham noted, “[i]t is the will of Allah that all men should acknowledge Him, should be under the temporary sway of the descendants of Mohammed, and made subject to the laws of the Koran.” He continued:

In its union of a universal earthly goal (global Islam),
totalist system of belief, and correlated army of believers,
Islam is analogous to modern Communism. In the jihad,
the holy war to fulfill Allah’s will that is suspended from
time to time but never ended until completed, these true
believers who die are translated at once to Paradise.

Burnham then briefly traced the beginnings of Islam in the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century; its expansion to Indonesia, North Africa, across the straits of Gibraltar, to Portugal, Spain and southwestern France; its recession after the Crusades during the Dark Ages; and its reinvigoration by Turkish tribes from central Asia, only to be halted at the gates of Vienna. Then, wrote Burnham, “in the slow pace of the centuries, the wave receded from the shores of Europe, and in this cycle Islam seemed to sink into the will-less lethargy that ends in the historical death of a civilization.”

Nasser’s rise to power in the most populous Arab state, Egypt, in the 1950s, revived Islam, which despite secular impulses in the Arab world “does not and cannot cut wholly loose from Allah and his Messenger and Book . . .,” Burnham explained. Geopolitically, with its dynamic base on the land-bridge between Europe, Asia, and Africa, “and controlling the passage between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean,” the Islamic revolution “appears spatially as a series of concentric circles encompassing ever wider regions of Africa, Asia, and, as the diameters lengthen, Europe.”

The stage was set, wrote Burnham long before the more celebrated analysis of Samuel Huntington, for a general clash of civilizations between militant Islam and the largely secularized, but historically Christian, West.

So it has come to pass, even as the Western powers refuse to acknowledge the essence of the struggle. No Western leader today would dare call Islam a “militant religion.” Instead, after each attack by Islamic radicals, most Western leaders and many opinion-makers point to all possible motivations other than religion.

Since Burnham wrote that prescient column more than forty years ago, militant Islam has grown, strengthened, expanded its geographical reach, and acquired modern weapons, perhaps even weapons of mass destruction. Burnham realized that if the West failed to understand or acknowledge the spiritual inspiration of its enemies, it was doomed to defeat. As he concluded in his column, jets, missiles, tanks, trade balances and oil wells are important, but “perhaps King Faisal’s wish that he may pray before his death in an Arab Jerusalem is also of some importance in history’s scale.” “Quite possibly,” he wrote, “there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamed of in either Marx’s or Adam Smith’s philosophy.”

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books) and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War (University Press of America). He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for The Diplomat, The University Bookman, Joint Force Quarterly, The National Interest, and The Claremont Review of Books.

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