The Roots of Terrorism and the Source of Freedom

In Raymond Arroyo’s fascinating EWTN interview with President George W. Bush before Pope Benedict XVI’s visit, President Bush said some very revealing things about how he views the sources of terrorism and, in general, the world. In two instances, his basically sound instincts led him awry. Both involve issues central to the country’s security, so they are worth examining.
About the appeal of Islamist ideology, President Bush said, “Hopelessness is the only way for ideologues who murder the innocent to be able to recruit their followers. No one who’s got a vision as dark and dim as al Qaeda can possibly say to somebody, follow me, my vision is hopeful or positive. It’s like, you’re so hopeless, this is your only out.”
This is completely wrong because this is exactly what al-Qaeda and its allies do say to recruit, and it works. Surely, the president must know the profile of the 9/11 perpetrators. They were middle-to-upper middle class Arabs who had advantages far beyond most of their fellow Arabs’ dreams. They had plenty of ways out. It is disturbing to think that the president could say such a thing this far into the global war on terrorism, as it exhibits a fundamental misunderstanding of the attraction of Islamism.
This misunderstanding also leads to the wrong prescription in dealing with it. President Bush went on to say, “And therefore, dealing with disease and hunger and despair helps defeat this — these bunch of ideologues.” However, neither hunger nor disease drove these terrorists to do what they did, and feeding and inoculating them would not have made a difference. They were animated by theological hope, perverted as it may have been and is.
The Washington Post ran a profile last year (July 7, 2007) on one of al-Qaeda’s foremost explosive experts, Saad al-Houssaini, a native of Morocco, that reveals a lot about how terrorists are really recruited. Like many terrorists, al-Houssaini came from a technical, scientific background, with little religious education. He was given a scholarship in chemistry for graduate study at the University of Valencia, Spain. According to the Post, his academic mentor said that, when al-Houssaini arrived, “He was not visibly religious and would occasionally join students or faculty for drinks.”
Then something changed. “He became radicalized in Spain after meeting a Tunisian friend,” reported the Post. “Our principal subjects of discussion were around the jihad,” said al-Houssaini. “He made me understand the importance of religion and faith, providing me with religious books and audiotapes of the great sheiks’ speeches.”
What was the need in al-Houssaini’s life that was met by his recruitment? Didn’t this young man have the very freedom and educational opportunities for which many Muslims long? Doesn’t President Bush’s remark, in fact, suggest that providing these opportunities is the solution to the problem of terrorism?
However, meaning was more important to al-Houssaini than freedom, or the prosperity that his graduate education in Spain could have brought him. Lack of food and medicine was not the problem. The problem is that the West is suffering from freedom without meaning. Its “vision” is “dark and dim,” and a source of despair. Offering Muslims materialism only incites resistance, because they sense in this offer real despair.
The mantra of freedom — unconnected to any higher purpose — translates as a form of materialism, just as it is practiced in Europe today. Therefore, al-Houssaini decided upon personal submission to a higher purpose as it was on offer to him from the Islamists. Were there any competing offers at this level? Apparently not.
So, al-Houssaini decided that is was more important to destroy the place that had offered him advancement, education, and a prosperous future than to take advantage of those things. Unless we understand how someone could make a decision like this — and many have — we will not defeat Islamist ideology at its source.
It was evident long before he met with Benedict XVI that President Bush is a man of deep faith, and that his understanding of freedom is not morally empty. And there seems little question that it is his faith that leads him to believe that freedom is a universal charter for mankind. However, this is where he goes awry again. He told Arroyo, “You know, I don’t think you can disassociate your faith with how you live your life. I mean, I think it’s all engrained. And I am optimistic because I happen to believe in certain universal principles, and I do believe that freedom is universal, and if just given a chance, people will live in a — will self-govern and live in a peaceful, free society.”
Here, the president seems to be paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence, and what he says seems as American as apple pie. However, there are some crucial steps missing in this statement that can lead to huge misunderstandings about what is possible in this world and America’s place in it. The assumption contained in President Bush’s remark is that, were it not for certain constraints upon them, all people would choose democracy. Therefore, it would appear that our job is to remove those constraints. Then the blessings of liberty will naturally appear, along with peace. This is not true.
All people are indeed endowed by their Creator with “certain unalienable rights.” However, those rights can only be exercised where they are recognized. The roots of that recognition came principally from the Christian religion. In the pope’s encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi, he cited one of the scriptural passages from which this recognition comes. In St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon (10-16), St. Paul writes to Philomen on how he ought to treat his runaway slave, Onesimus, whom St. Paul is sending back to his master. “I appeal to you for my child . . . whose father I have become in my imprisonment . . . . I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart . . . perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother. . . .”
There are, of course, other such passages. For instance, in Galatians, we read, “There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” As Benedict writes, “Even if external structures remained unaltered, this changed society from within.” Thus it was that slavery was first eliminated by Great Britain and that this revelation received its political translation in the Declaration of Independence. Without the revelation that man is made in the image of God, it is doubtful either of these things would have happened.
This does not mean that one must be a Christian to acknowledge that all people are created equal. Another avenue is open to that realization through philosophy and the recognition that every person’s soul is ordered to the same transcendent good or end — which is what we mean by human nature in the first place. For this to happen, however, the culture in which it takes place must be open to reason or, more exactly, to reason’s authority in its ability to apprehend reality. There are, in fact, very few cultures in which this is the case, which is why we have seen so little of democratic constitutional order in history.
For instance, the reason the democratization of the Middle East has not happened is that its culture is missing either ingredient necessary for it to succeed. The Christian revelation that “changed society from within” is in many respects inimical to Muslim revelation, which has left Middle Eastern society unchanged from within in the very way it most needs to be for democratic life. Also, philosophy was expelled from Sunni Islam by Caliph al-Mutawakkil when he suppressed the Mutazilites as long ago as the ninth century. The status of reason was decisively undermined by al-Ghazali’s vitriolic anti-philosophical teachings in the early 12th century. The resulting situation led Arab scholar Bassim Tibi to conclude that “in the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism — or, for that matter, in the minds of the Islamic peoples — democracy is not an important issue.”
United States anti-colonial policy in the Middle East after World War II did not seem cognizant of the significance of these things. We thought the problems in the Middle East were the result of British and French occupation. Remove the colonizers, and the Arab peoples would naturally assume the blessings of self-government and liberty. With this in mind, we pressured the British and French to withdraw from their mandates. They did. However, the United States soon learned that the problems of the Middle East were not all of colonial origin; they were indigenous.
How do you “give a chance” to people for this universal freedom that President Bush thinks is so natural to everyone? It would seem either through evangelization or from the inculcation of philosophy, or both. Neither of these has been important components of U.S. foreign policy in my experience of it for more than the past 30 years. The enormous difficulty of the task does not necessarily mean that it should not be undertaken. It does mean that, if one tries to do this, one has to understand that it is a civilizational task involving generations of effort, and that one has oneself to be civilized before attempting it.
Which brings us back to where we began: freedom without faith does not work. President Bush knows this in his heart, but he does not seem to understand its full implications for the spread of freedom and the defeat of terrorism.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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