Radical Islam and the Left: A Conversation with Dinesh D’Souza

Dinesh D’Souza knows controversy. The author of the bombshells Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (Free Press, 1998), The End of Racism (Free Press, 1996), and What’s So Great About America (Penguin, 2003) — as well as a former editor of crisis — he is not afraid to stir things up. 

So it is with his newest book, The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11 (Doubleday), which is already attracting a good bit of negative attention from the general media. We spoke with D’Souza about contemporary liberalism and its role in Islamic anti-Americanism.

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Brian Saint-Paul: You make a fairly dramatic claim in your new book, The Enemy at Home. In it, you argue that the cultural Left is at least partially to blame for the attacks of September 11. Let’s start by defining some terms — who is the “cultural Left”?

Dinesh D’Souza: Well, I certainly don’t mean the Democratic Party or all Democrats. I’m referring to the left wing of the Democratic Party — and this group itself has a foreign-policy wing and a social or cultural wing.

The foreign-policy types are those who are fighting what you might call the “war against the war on terror.” The social and cultural wing includes groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State — in other words, groups that are trying to enhance and justify some of the excesses of our popular culture, as well as those who want to expel religion from the public sphere altogether.

BSP: In your book, while you mention these two groups, you do observe that they are largely the same people.

DD: Yes. This is the Revolving Placard Syndrome. The people who are protesting the war in Iraq are the same people who want to remove the Ten Commandments from public spaces and who march for abortion and homosexual marriage. One week they’re in foreign-policy mode and the next they’re in the social mode.

BSP: Obviously, you’re not a conspiracy theorist. You’re not claiming that the Left was actively involved in the 9/11 plot. So how are they partially responsible?

DD: Well, I would say the Left is more than partially responsible. Certainly, the Left didn’t commit any of the acts themselves—those were carried out by radical Muslims. But the question you have to ask is, “Did the Left sow the seeds of 9/11?” I think they did, in two ways.

In the foreign-policy domain, radical Islam—which started in the 1920s with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood—was essentially a marginal phenomenon. It was on the outskirts of Islamic society. But in 1979, it made a major advance by capturing Iran, a crucial Muslim state. Before that, Iran was under the Shah, who was a valuable American ally.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected, and his coterie of left-wing advisers went to Congress and said, “You believe in human rights, and yet we’re allied with the Shah, whose secret police violate human rights. We have to pull the Persian rug out from under him and make him abdicate.” As a result, the United States pressured the Shah to leave. He did, and we got Khomeini. This was a massive foreign-policy blunder. In getting rid of a bad guy, we got an even worse guy. But most importantly, it was American policy that was complicit in letting radical Islam take control of an important Muslim state.

The second point in the foreign-policy domain is that after the Cold War, many of the radical Muslims who were fighting in Afghanistan went back to their home countries. Bin Laden went back to Saudi Arabia, for example. They were then fighting to overthrow their own governments—what they called the “near enemy.” {mospagebreak}

In the late 1990s, they made a radical shift away from fighting the “near enemy” to taking on the “far enemy”—in other words, the United States. This is odd, since the “far enemy” is much more formidable. If you can’t defeat Musharaff in Pakistan, what makes you think you can take on the United States?

But bin Laden thought that the United States was actually more vulnerable. He believes that while America seems outwardly strong and boastful, it’s cowardly and will run away if challenged.

BSP: What led him to believe that?

DD: Part of it was because the Arab Afghans were successful beyond their wildest dreams in driving out the Soviet Union. We go around today saying that the West won the Cold War. But this is not an article of faith in the Muslim world. The radical Muslims say that they won the Cold War by defeating the Soviet Union. So there is a certain kind of arrogance in this. They think, “Hey, if we can drive out a ruthless superpower, maybe the other superpower isn’t so tough either.”

But bin Laden wasn’t sure, so he decided to test it out. That’s why, in the 1990s, we saw a repeated set of test strikes [on] vital American targets. This was an experiment to test American resolve. In the Clinton years, the president had surrounding him a collection of left-wing advisers—from Janet Reno to Sandy Berger to Warren Christopher—many of whom were retreads from the Carter administration.

In every case, they did either nothing or they responded in such a weak and perfunctory way that bin Laden’s hypothesis that America was a cowardly giant was confirmed. That emboldened him to strike on 9/11.

These would be two clear ways in which the Left laid the foreign-policy seeds of 9/11.

BSP: You mentioned in your book that we have yet to really understand the reasons behind the attacks. Both the Left and Right offer different explanations, but neither addresses the question sufficiently. The Left says Muslims feel a residual bitterness over the Crusades, among other things, and from the Right we hear that they hate us for our freedom. What’s wrong with these explanations?

DD: If you think about it, the predominant liberal and conservative views of 9/11 don’t make a lot of sense.

The popular liberal view is that Muslims are responding to the sins of our foreign-policy past—colonialism, for example. The problem, though, is that the United States has no history of colonialism in the Middle East. In fact, the United States played an active role in forcing the Europeans out of the region after World War II.

If Filipinos or Native Americans were launching these terrorist strikes, then this explanation might be plausible. But this makes no sense in the Middle East.

BSP: What about the standard conservative explanation for the attacks?

DD: Well, they’re arguing that radical Muslims are against modernity, science, capitalism, democracy, or—as President Bush has claimed—they hate us for our freedom. For the past three or four years, I’ve been studying radical Islamic thought—specifically, the thinkers who have influenced contemporary radical Muslims. When you read their work, you find that there are no denunciations of modernity, no condemnations of science, no condemnations of freedom. In fact, their whole argument seems to be that the United States—through our support of secular dictators in the region—is denying Muslims freedom and control over their own destiny.{mospagebreak}

BSP: And democracy?

DD: Democracy is a bit trickier. Traditionally, radical Islam has opposed democracy. But this has changed dramatically over the past decade as radical Muslims have seen that they can actually win elections. This became apparent when radicals swept the polls in Algeria and, more recently, with the success of Hamas in the Palestinian Territories. As a result, radical Muslims have seen that democracy can work for them.

BSP: At least in the short term.

DD: In the short term, yes. So all of this shows that the easy claim that they’re against democracy or modernity is wrong. It’s more accurate to say that they do not hate us for our freedom, but they condemn us for how we have used our freedom. The thrust of bin Laden’s argument is that America has become a pagan, immoral society. That’s bad enough for him, but he also sees the United States foisting its paganism on the rest of the world—both through its foreign policy and through its culture. And he believes that it’s the duty of all good monotheists to rise up in rebellion against it. That’s the real root of Muslim rage.

BSP: Which leads us to another point: You believe that 9/11 revealed a chasm in America itself—a clash over the meaning of America. What is that chasm?

DD: What’s happened in America is a real shift. Traditionally, U.S. politics has been divided by class. If you wanted to try to predict how people voted, you really only needed to look at their pocketbooks. Traditionally, the wealthy voted conservative or Republican and the poor voted liberal or Democratic.
There were very few exceptions to this.

Today, American politics is divided fundamentally over values. Here we have two camps, best described in this way: On the one side you have conservatives who believe in traditional values, which is to say that there’s a moral order in the universe external to us that makes claims on us. On the other side, you have the liberal assertion that there is no external moral order but that morality is subjective. You find it not by looking out there, but in here. Morality is not a product of the norms of nature or nature’s God, but the product of the dictates of one’s own heart. This is a kind of new morality and is at the root not only of the culture war, but also of the anti-Americanism around the world.

This is particularly true of the traditional cultures around the world: South America, Africa, the Middle East, India, and China—in other words, the whole world with the exception of Europe and North America. This new American morality—the liberal morality—is considered an assault on the traditional values that most people hold dear.

BSP: And this is what the Muslim world is responding to—specifically, the America of the Left?

DD: Exactly. If you look at something like Abu Ghraib, there was great outcry here in America. Most of the controversy focused on allegations of torture. But if you look at the photos, the torture was largely staged or simulated. What scandalized the Muslims was not the torture at Abu Ghraib, which was quite mild compared to the torture found in prisons in any part of the Muslim world. Rather, Muslims were outraged by the sexual depravity of the Abu Ghraib persecutions. It’s one thing to fight a war against a guy, capture him, and lock him up. It’s another thing to put a woman’s underwear on his head, or force him to masturbate while you take his picture. This sort of thing was considered a desecration of honor. {mospagebreak} 



Here in America, we say, “Well, that was a fraternity-style prank.” But in the Muslim world, it’s very serious. If you desecrate someone, you violate his honor. This is actually more objectionable than putting a prisoner in front of a firing squad or, God forbid, even chopping off his head.

BSP: So we’ve failed to really understand the Islamic anger over Abu Ghraib, just as we feel misunderstood by much of the international community.

DD: When you consider America’s image around the world, it’s a little odd that the Europeans see America one way, while people in traditional societies see something quite different. European anti-Americans say America is a conservative, fundamentalist, Bible-drenched society; there’s a cowboy in the White House, people running around with guns, people speaking in tongues, anti-evolutionists, etc. In other words, Europeans tend to see Red America, and that’s what they don’t like.

However, if you ask a fellow in the Muslim world what he doesn’t like about America, he’ll point to a popular culture that he thinks has no sense of shame. Look at the way the family has broken down, or the promiscuity of the society. So radical Muslims actually see Blue America.

BSP: Obviously, neither view entirely represents America.

DD: True, but most Muslims don’t know that. They see the America that is projected by our public and popular culture.

If that is the America they hate—and if, to some degree, they’re right to dislike it—then who made that America? Who is responsible for taking these values and not simply marketing them, but defending them in the name of freedom and autonomy and liberation?

You see, Muslims are not objecting to pornography—pornography is universal. However, the Muslim world is objecting to the notion that pornography is somehow a form of liberation, or that divorce is a form of self-expression, or the effort to destroy a person’s religious faith is actually a good thing. These are seen in traditional societies as a complete inversion of what is good and right—almost an upside-down morality. And they also object to the effort to foist these ideas onto peoples and societies that don’t want them.

The radical Muslim position is not that they want to take over the world and make everyone a Muslim. Nobody claims that. Rather, Muslims think they need to rise up to prevent the pernicious influence of American atheism and American culture from destroying traditional Islamic culture.

This is why non-radical Muslims—who are the majority in the Islamic world—are so paralyzed. We keep asking, “Why don’t they stand up and condemn the terrorists?” The fact is, they would condemn the terrorists, but they’re caught in the middle. On the one hand, they have a violent faction, which they dislike, acting in the name of Islam. But on the other, this violent faction is pointing to America as a pagan, depraved society, and the non-radicals largely agree and don’t want to be seen defending that kind of society. That’s why they keep their mouths shut. {mospagebreak}

BSP: Both the Left and the Right seem to be conducting an ongoing search for “liberal” Muslims in the Middle East, to counterbalance the radicals. But in your book, you say there’s really no such thing. 



DD: In talking about “liberal” Muslims, we have to distinguish between the old and new liberalism. Classical liberalism—the idea that we must have the freedom to vote or to assemble or be religiously tolerant—has wide support in the Islamic world. You can look at the Pew studies or the World Values Survey for confirmation of that. Muslims can accept the old liberalism.

On the other hand, we have the new liberalism of a Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, or Michael Moore. This brand of liberalism has almost no support in the Islamic world. You can find isolated individuals like Salman Rushdie, but they have no constituency among Muslims.

The Muslim world is divided between the radical Muslims and the traditional Muslims. Both groups are religiously and socially conservative. The main difference between the two is that the radicals support violence as a way of striking out against America, while traditional Muslims do not. However, the radicals have been very successful over the past decade in recruiting traditional Muslims into their ranks.

So no long-term victory in the war on terrorism can work unless it finds a way to put a wedge between traditional Islam and radical Islam.

BSP: I don’t think it’s going too far to say that most conservatives and faithful Christians would agree with 90 percent of the Islamic critique of America’s liberal culture. Given this, what can we do to help win this war? We may have more common ground than we thought.

DD: I would say three things. First, don’t condemn Islam as a whole. The clash-of-civilizations idea has a grain of truth in it, but it is both tactically and morally wrong. In fact, it plays right into bin Laden’s hands. He wants to construe the war in exactly those terms.

If you dismiss Islam as being inherently violent or say the Prophet Mohammed is the founder of terrorism, then you’re pushing the traditional Muslims into the radical camp. This is a foolish thing to do, even if what you’re saying is true. Now, I would maintain that this is not true. Islam has been around for roughly 1,300 years, and radical Islam and Islamic terrorism have only been around for a few decades. So we can’t blame Islam itself or Mohammed. There must be something going on in Islam today to make it an incubator for violent fanaticism.

While rejecting Islamic theology, Christians and conservatives can find common cause with traditional Muslims on issues of morality—particularly in the foreign sphere and in the United Nations. Traditional Christians, Muslims, and Jews can help promote traditional values on the international stage.

BSP: And, in fact, they’ve done that in the past.

DD: Yes, there is precedent for this on family planning, abortion, and so on.

Second, the conservative and Christian can paradoxically fight the war on terror by fighting the culture war at home. We can help improve America’s image worldwide by working for the restoration of American culture, by strengthening the expression of religious values in the public sphere, by defending the traditional family, and by producing a healthy alternative to popular culture. {mospagebreak}

And third, the U.S. government and its private citizens should do more to highlight the other America. The America that traditional cultures see is only one side of America. If traditional Muslims could see that there are hundreds of millions of Americans who go to work each day, who look after their families, and who practice traditional values, it would go a long way in undermining the radical Muslim claim that the United States is the fountainhead of global atheism. Keep in mind here that bin Laden, in his video messages to other Muslims, is always making the point that America is not a Christian society but a pagan society no different from the one Mohammed encountered in the seventh century.

BSP: Given that the Right can indeed share common cause on matters of morality and some of the other issues you mentioned, can we ever really be on good terms with traditional Muslims if we continue our current level of support for Israel? Is our relationship with Israel a deal-breaker?

DD: That’s a difficult question. I don’t think that support for Israel by itself is all that important. Israel is a small dot in a large Muslim landscape. But Israel matters a great deal symbolically—it’s seen as an outpost of Western civilization. Also, Israel’s military dominance over the armies of the Muslim nations has been a source of great embarrassment and humiliation for Islamic countries. For this reason, Israel is a massive irritant—it’s a reminder of how low Muslim culture has sunk.

Traditional Muslims know that America is double-dealing them on the issue of Israel. By that I mean that the United States is posing as a neutral arbiter when in fact it’s a partisan. When there’s a peace conference, the Americans say, “We’re the referees. We’re going to fairly arbitrate the claims between the Palestinians and the Israelis,” and then every American politician runs back to his home district and says, “I will never abandon Israel. I’m unequivocally committed to Israel.” The Muslims know this, so there’s a great deal of distrust.

I think, in the short term, we would do better by leveling with traditional Muslims and saying, “Look, you have interests and we have interests. There are political and practical reasons why America supports Israel.” In being more candid with Muslims and by appealing more to self-interest than to a false notion of impartiality, I think we could help clear the air and prevent Israel from being a deal-breaker.

BSP: So by making the pragmatic case to Muslims, we can help them understand our position, though they may not wholly agree?

DD: Yes. Muslims will say, “Isn’t it true that Jews are incredibly powerful in America and have a great influence on American foreign policy?” This always produces pandemonium in the U.S. government and heated denials. But a much more commonsense response is, “Yes, it’s true. American Jews are very influential, especially in the Democratic Party, but also to a degree in the Republican Party as well. But it’s also true that most Americans know Jews, but don’t know any Muslims. It’s also true that most Americans are Christian and see a deep continuity between Judaism and Christianity that they don’t see with Islam. All of this means that U.S. foreign policy is going to reflect that reality.” {mospagebreak}

This is a new way of talking, but a much better way of talking. Muslims live in a rough geographical neighborhood, so they understand the language of practicality and self-interest.

BSP: It also avoids the patronizing tone that we hear so often from the Left and the Right when it comes to Islam.

DD: I couldn’t agree more. A few months ago, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran made his speech on the Holocaust, I printed it out and read it carefully. I quickly realized that we have completely missed what the guy was saying. The thrust of the speech was not that the Holocaust didn’t occur. His basic argument was, “If the Holocaust happened, we didn’t do it.”

In other words, if the Holocaust occurred, it was carried out by Europeans, not by Muslims. So if the Europeans did it, the Europeans should pay for it. Give [the Jews] Norway or Alaska. Don’t give them Muslim land. You can see why this kind of argument has a common-sense appeal to the ordinary Muslim on the street.

But this argument wasn’t even discussed in the United States. All the coverage claimed that he was denying the Holocaust, when in fact that isn’t true. This is a classic example of how a certain kind of ethnocentrism is preventing us from knowing our enemy, understanding the source of his appeal, and forming effective ways to combat it.


  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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