- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 3, 2004

Behind the physical attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was an intellectual attack — not just on American foreign policy but also on the central principle of American life, the principle of freedom.

So far, the United States has responded with effective military action against the al Qaeda network, but it has not effectively answered the Islamic critique of America at its deepest level.

Usually Americans seek to defend their society by appealing to its shared principles. Thus, they say America is a free or a prosperous society, or is diverse and pluralistic, or a place where religious differences are tolerated, or a nation where women have the same rights as men. The most intelligent Islamic critics admit all this but dismiss it as worthless triviality.

A leading theoreticians of Islamic fundamentalism is Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb. Qutb, called “the brains behind bin Laden.” Mr. Qutb and other Islamic radicals argue the West is a society based on freedom while the Islamic world is based on virtue.

In his books, Mr. Qutb says: Look at how badly freedom is often used in the West. Look at the pervasive materialism, the crime rates, the breakdown of the family, the pervasive vulgarity and debasement of the popular culture. Our society may be poor, Mr. Qutb and other Islamic activists say, but we try to carry out God’s will. Mr. Qutb argues Islamic laws are based on divine law, and God’s law is necessarily higher than any human law. The Islamic radicals contend virtue is ultimately a higher principle than freedom.

We are tempted to dismiss the Islamic critique as based on irrational hatred or envy, but we shouldn’t. Indeed the Islamic critique as exemplified by Mr. Qutb is quite similar to the critique that the classical philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, made of freedom. The classical thinkers would have agreed with Mr. Qutb that virtue, not freedom, is the ultimate goal of a good society. And in saying this, they would be quite right. How, then, can the Islamic argument against America be answered on its own terms?

Let us concede that, in a free society, freedom often will be used badly. The Islamic critics have a point when they deplore our high crime and illegitimacy rates and the triviality and vulgarity of our popular culture. Freedom, by definition, includes freedom to do good or evil, to act nobly or basely. Thus we should not be surprised there is considerable vice, license and vulgarity in a free society. Given the warp of humanity, freedom simply expresses human flaws and weaknesses.

But if freedom brings out the worst in people, it also brings out the best. The millions of Americans who live decent, praiseworthy lives deserve our highest admiration because they have opted for the good when the good is not the only option. Even amidst the temptations a rich and free society offers, they have remained on the straight path. Their virtue has special luster because it is freely chosen.

The free society does not guarantee virtue, any more than it guarantees happiness. But it allows pursuit of both, a pursuit rendered all the more meaningful and profound as success is not guaranteed and must be won through personal striving.

By contrast, the authoritarian society Islamic fundamentalists advocate undermines the possibility of virtue. If virtue is insufficient in free societies, it is almost nonexistent in Islamic societies because coerced virtues are not virtues at all.

Consider the woman required to wear a veil. There is no modesty in this, because the woman is compelled. Compulsion cannot produce virtue, but only produce the outward semblance of virtue.

Indeed, once the reins of coercion are released, as they were for the terrorists who lived in the United States, the worst impulses of human nature break loose. Sure enough, the deeply religious terrorists spent their last days in gambling dens, bars and strip clubs, sampling the licentious lifestyle they were about to strike out against. In this respect, they were like the Spartans, who — Plutarch tells us — were abstemious in public but privately coveted wealth and luxury. In theocracies such as Iran, the absence of freedom signals the absence of virtue.

“To make us love our country,” Edmund Burke once wrote, “our country ought to be lovely.” A reflective patriotism in America is based on understanding that the free society is not simply more prosperous, more varied and more tolerant: It is also morally superior to the Islamic society. The greatness of America is that it gives us the freedom to live both the good life and the life that is good.

Dinesh D’Souza, the Rishwain Scholar at the Hoover Institution, is the author of “What’s So Great About America.”

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