War of Cultures

Published February 14, 2007

National Review Online

It’s a cold day in May when I think someone is exaggerating the significance of America’s culture war. Usually the problem is the opposite: wishful liberals writing off the culture war as a myth. Well, my moment of culture-war overload has finally arrived. I’ve just finished Dinesh D’Souza’s new book, The Enemy at Home, which argues that the war on terror and America’s culture war are the same war.

As D’Souza puts it in his intentionally startling opening: “The cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11.” No, D’Souza isn’t accusing Frank Rich of piloting a plane into the World Trade Center. Instead, D’Souza’s arguing that the “deluge of gross depravity and immorality” let loose by the cultural left has not only split our country politically, but has provoked a backlash among the world’s traditional societies — Muslim societies above all. Hollywood depravity and feminist activism aren’t just American phenomena, D’Souza reminds us. American movies play worldwide, just as leftist-dominated U.N. agencies impose Western feminist radicalism across the globe. Absent these provocations by the cultural left, claims D’Souza, “9/11 would not have happened.”

So to simultaneously win the war on terror and America’s culture war, D’Souza proposes a grand coalition between traditional Muslims and America’s conservatives — a union that would ultimately embrace traditionalists in every culture and corner of the world. This coalition would marginalize the secular left in the United States, while turning against Muslim terrorists abroad. If U.S. conservatives could only let pious Muslims see the moral and religious America that disdains the values of the cultural Left, D’Souza promises, Muslim traditionalists would reciprocate by rejecting the violent, anti-American radicals in their midst. Yes, D’Souza grants, these traditionalists may use democracy to establish sharia law abroad. But Islamic law doesn’t cause terrorism. Placate Islamic traditionalists by showing them that America has traditionalists of its own, and the wave of terror will stop.

D’Souza’s argument is thoughtful, provocative…and seriously misconceived. D’Souza’s sympathy for Muslim criticisms of American culture, his attempts to treat the American left and Islamist radicals as parallel enemies in the war on terror, and his complacency about the prospect of still more societies falling under the dominance of Islamic law, have all understandably sparked outrage on the Right as well as the Left. D’Souza’s motives have been questioned, too. Is this nothing but a sensationalist sales strategy?

Actually, The Enemy at Home is something more serious and interesting than that. While D’Souza’s larger argument is substantially off the mark, it contains an important kernel of truth — much of which is derived from D’Souza’s own experience as an immigrant from India to the United States. D’Souza may be wrong — even badly wrong — yet he’s also sincere and intelligent enough to have fallen into a fruitful error, one worth probing and correcting. So, instead of huffing and puffing about this provocation of a book, let’s use The Enemy at Home as an occasion to do what D’Souza asks us to do: revisit the intellectual foundations of the war on terror.

Movie or Marriage?
After a flood of books on the connections between various schools of Islam and terrorism, it’s interesting to see someone take another tack. D’Souza is undoubtedly correct to finger the global spread of our “liberated” post-Sixties culture as a factor in the terror war. But the only factor? Is the cultural left really “the primary reason” for Islamic anti-Americanism, without which “9/11 would not have happened”? That sort of mono-causality is unconvincing. Not only does D’Souza downplay and deny the profound influence of Islam on our current dilemma, he ignores an array of non-religious, or only marginally religious, factors that his own explanation is (or ought to be) directly tied to.

With all the post-9/11 attention to Islam, for example, we’ve given short shrift to Middle Eastern kinship structures-like the Muslim preference for marriage to the father’s brother’s daughter (see “Root Causes“). These marriage and family patterns inhibit political and economic development, block immigrant assimilation, and are indeed directly threatened by the sort of cultural productions D’Souza decries. Yet, while Islamists may seize upon Hollywood films and international productions of the Vagina Monologues as symbols of their underlying objections to modernity, the more important sources of conflict are the distinctively Muslim social practices that generate such complaints to begin with.

In other words, if immigrant British Muslims weren’t secluding their daughters in hopes of preserving family honor and protecting an already promised marriage to a cousin back in Pakistan, they’d be far less upset with Western movies in the first place. What’s driving the distress is less the movies that a daughter sees at college than the fact that British daughters go off to college at all, freely meet men there, and freely choose their husbands from among those men. Other British immigrant communities, with less restrictive family practices, may occasionally grouse about cultural depravity. Yet the complaints are less frequent, less deeply felt, and far less deadly. It’s the marriage practice, not the movie, that counts.

One of These Things is Not Like the Other
D’Souza shifts our focus away from the distinctive characteristics of Islamic religion and social life by treating the reaction against the American cultural Left as a worldwide phenomenon. The quest for a global coalition that would unite American conservatives with indignant traditionalists from China to Nigeria to Latin America to India is D’Souza’s political holy grail. The cultural left, he says, “has fostered a decadent American culture that angers and repulses traditional societies, especially those in the Islamic world…” Notice that “especially.” If traditionalists across the globe are repulsed by Hollywood culture, why have only Islamists resorted to anti-Western terror? “The Islamic fundamentalists are the most extreme and politically mobilized segment of this global resistance,” concedes D’Souza. Indeed they are. But why?

On several occasions, D’Souza comes close to acknowledging, and partially explaining, the unique predilection of Muslim culture for violent attacks against modernity. Yet D’Souza repeatedly refuses to draw the conclusions of his own argument. When striving to puncture Western prejudice, D’Souza is happy to discourse on the unique features of Islam. Yet most of the arguments D’Souza deploys against Western “ethnocentrism” also happen to explain why, despite D’Souza’s denials, there really is a unique and deep-lying cultural clash between Islam and modernity.

D’Souza tries to clear a path for an alliance of Muslim and Christian traditionalists by sympathetically explaining key differences between the two religions: “Unlike many Christians, who have multiple identities only one of which is that they happen to be Christian, Muslims typically regard their religion as central to both private and public identity, and consider all other affiliations as secondary or derivative.” Good point. The lesson D’Souza seeks to draw here is that Christians ought to tolerate the somewhat broader religious boundaries of their sincerely traditionalist brethren in the Middle East. Yet doesn’t the tendency to subordinate all public and private identities to Islam suggest a reason why Islam and modernity are in tens
ion to begin with?

To further facilitate an alliance between traditional Muslims and Christians, D’Souza carefully explains the difference between Christian martyrdom (willingness to endure suffering and death rather than relinquish the faith) and Muslim martyrdom (dying while fighting for the faith). Might this decidedly more aggressive Muslim conception of martyrdom (rather than simply the Vagina Monologues) have something to do with 9/11? Remarkably, D’Souza denies it: “Nor can anyone reasonably assert that Islam is intrinsically the problem….Islam has been around for more than a thousand years, and for most of its history produced neither suicide attackers nor terrorists.” Since only contemporary Islam creates suicide bombers, D’Souza points to current circumstances (i.e., the worldwide rise of the cultural Left) to explain the change.

This is a clever but flawed intellectual move. Actually, Islam has a long history of producing violent and radical sects (like the Kharijites and the Assassins) in times of crisis. Today’s violent Islamist radicalism is simultaneously part of a long-standing religious tradition and something important to place in its modern context. But the real problem for D’Souza’s argument is that the current crisis flows from a comprehensive and deep-lying conflict between Islam and modernity, of which the excrescences of contemporary popular culture form only the most superficial layer.

Washed Out Contrasts
Hoping to build an international coalition of traditionalists. D’Souza sets up a thinned-out comparative framework that tells us almost nothing about the people who are actually attacking us. With secular leftists fingered as the common enemy, D’Souza lumps together every other religion and social practice in the world under headings like “traditional morality,” and “the patriarchal family.” Yet except in the imaginings of feminists, who make the same superficial universalist dichotomies (even as they root against D’Souza’s side), it is far too simple to speak of “the” patriarchal family. Tocqueville contrasted the relatively limited paternal authority he found in 1830s America with the tougher patriarchy of France. That, in turn, was as nothing in comparison to patriarchy in pre-revolutionary France, where a father could have a son imprisoned in the Bastille for threatening the family’s reputation with scandal. This begins to sound almost Muslim, yet the differences between even pre-revolutionary French family structures and their Muslim counterparts were huge.

D’Souza washes out all of these contrasts by pointing to the common belief among the world’s traditional peoples that there is “a moral order in the universe that makes claims on us.” Well, yes, the belief in an external morality does indeed distinguish traditional cultures as a group from the expressive individualist morality of modern secularism. Yet D’Souza dismisses the massive differences between and among these traditional groups with a wave of his hand. Particular societies, he concedes, might disagree “about the exact source of this [external] moral order, its precise content, or how a society should convert its moral beliefs into legal and social practice.” (I’ll say!) But for D’Souza, it’s enough to note that the virtues praised by most traditional cultures make up “pretty much the same list.” D’Souza goes so far as to equate “the traditional morality that holds sway in all traditional cultures” with the “virtual moral consensus in America prior to the 1960’s.”

That would certainly have surprised the 1878 Supreme Court, which unanimously rejected the practice of polygamy on the grounds of its incompatibility with democracy. (See “Polygamy Versus Democracy.”) Polygamy, the court said, embodies a “patriarchal principle” characteristic of societies in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa — a principle incompatible with the American system of government.

Yet, hoping to build a worldwide coalition of traditionalists, D’Souza attacks Western objections to polygamy as ethnocentric. Besides, says D’Souza, polygamy is in the Bible. And what about all that early European patriarchy? Here D’Souza is glossing over the unique synthesis of “traditional” family life with egalitarian and individualist values that early Christianity began, and that Tocqueville’s America brought fully into harmony with democracy. Our war on terror has everything to do with the fact that Muslim society has failed to forge such a synthesis.

The most effective and oft-repeated criticism of The Enemy at Home is its failure to deal with the hostility of the founder of modern Islamist radicalism, Sayyid Qutb, to even the tame social mores of the Truman era. Qutb traveled to the United States as an exchange student and was taken aback by a church-sponsored square-dance in 1949 Colorado. Of course, even the most conservative American Christian culture-warriors are looking merely to go “back to the fifties.” If a 1949 square dance is “decadent,” what hope is there for an alliance between traditional Muslims and conservative Christians?

Even the passages from Qutb that D’Souza himself cites implicitly make this point. D’Souza speaks of Qutb’s criticism of church-goers who care more about personal display and match-making than about religious devotion. According to Qutb, church socials mistakenly encourage relations between men and women “based on lust, passion, and impulse.” True, fifties social observers like Will Herberg famously noted that a huge spike in American church attendance had as much to do with “social location” as with piety. Yet Qutb’s complaint runs deeper. In Muslim societies, where marriages are arranged (often among kin) and women are secluded from outsiders (to save them for marriages to kin), you do not go to mosque to find a husband. For Christians, on the other hand, a church social is the ideal place to meet a serious, respectful, family-minded spouse. This difference has everything to do with the long-standing Christian insistence that men and women are to be their own ultimate authorities in the matter of marriage. Centuries of this Christian individualism eventually led to modern democracy, and to the collapse of the sort of in-turned kinship networks that continue to block modernization in the Middle East. This profound cultural contrast stands behind Qutb’s outrage at the very idea of a church social.

The Clash
Yet D’Souza repeatedly challenges the notion that there is any sort of “clash” between modernity and Islam. After all, D’Souza reminds us, the terrorists aren’t against modern technology. On the contrary, many of them are engineers, who happily use technology to kill us. Nor are Muslims against capitalism, says D’Souza. After all, Muhammad himself was a trader. Terrorists even mimic modern business models like the franchise.

None of this is persuasive. The real clash between Islamic society and modernity is rooted in the Middle Eastern social system. It’s all right to go to college to learn about technology, but what about the mixing of the sexes at school? The problem is especially acute when higher education delays the age of marriage, thus putting family-made marriage arrangements at risk. That’s why modern Islamism first took off in mid-1970s Egypt, as a growing cohort of male and female college students spontaneously began to don traditional dress in mixed company (see “Veil of Fears“). Family ties — and alliances modeled on, or growing out of, family ties — also block political and economic development in the Islamic world. Inveterate corruption in Middle Eastern bureaucracies, for example, ensures that only those with family and/or political connections to the regime can get, say, a telephone installed, or a license t
o open a business.

Contrary to D’Souza, Samuel Huntington’s “clash” thesis does not rest on a simple opposition between technology and Islam. Instead, Huntington is interested in the conflict between what he calls “traditional village and clan ties” and “urbanization, social mobilization, higher levels of literacy and education, intensified communications and media consumption, and expanded interaction with Western and other cultures” (Clash of Civilizations, p. 116). Notice that Huntington includes D’Souza’s legitimate concerns with the globalization of Western media, yet also sets those issues in the context of a broader focus on Middle Eastern social structures.

Outstanding Issues
So D’Souza is wrong. This war has everything to do with the clash between modernity and Islamic social life. That conflict is profoundly shaped by Islam itself, yet it’s also structured by a wider series of Middle Eastern social practices that are not religious per se — practices to which we have given far too little attention. In his quest to forge a worldwide coalition of traditionalists to win the terror war abroad and the culture war at home, D’Souza has grossly exaggerated the importance of the cultural Left and grossly underplayed the distinctive character of Islamic social life. Yet D’Souza’s focus on Islamic anger at post-Sixties culture and morality will be fruitful if it directs our attention to the still misunderstood or unexamined sources of that rage.

Other controversial themes in The Enemy at Home deserve comment: D’Souza’s quasi-endorsement of illiberal democracy, his strategy for creating a split between Islamic traditionalists and radicals, and his claim that America’s left has entered into a de facto alliance with Osama bin Laden. Finally, there is the question of what inspired D’Souza to lay out these controversial arguments in the first place. I hope to touch on all of these questions down the road.

Stimulated by D’Souza’s flawed attempt to provide a new intellectual foundation for the war on terror, I want to point toward an alternative big-picture strategy. I’ll shortly be putting out a series of pieces on Muslim marriage, kinship, and social structure, and the link between them and our long-term strategy for the war on terror. In the course of that effort, I’ll continue to use The Enemy at Home as a foil. With all of its flaws — perhaps because of its flaws — D’Souza’s book at least has the virtue of forcing us to think afresh about the intellectual underpinnings of the war on terror.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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