George Weigel’s timely book, “Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action,” published in 2007, looks at the role jihadism plays in the terrorism threat to the United States and to the West. Mr. Weigel, who lives in North Bethesda, is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. He is a Catholic theologian who serves as a speaker and commentator on issues of religion and public life. He is the author or editor of 19 books.
The following are excerpts from an interview with Mr. Weigel:
Question: What is the main message you hope to get across in your book?
Answer: That we are engaged in a war of ideas with Islamist jihadism in which nothing less is at stake than the future of the West. I would also like my readers to know what jihadism is: a religiously inspired ideology which teaches that it is the moral duty of every Muslim to use any means necessary to compel the world’s submission to Islam.
I would like readers to understand that while it is true that the majority of Muslims don’t believe that’s what their faith demands of them, that fact is also irrelevant, because that’s what jihadists believe, and that’s what makes jihadists the enemies of their fellow Muslims and the rest of the world.
Finally, I’d like readers to understand that the roots of 21st-century jihadism lie in a powerful and lethal mixture of a particularly stringent interpretation of Islam and nihilism; that’s what produces the death cult that is so prominent in jihadism today.
Q: What is the key for survival of the West and of Democracy?
A: The key is cultural self-confidence: confidence in our ability to make reasonable, rational arguments in favor of tolerance, civility and religious freedom. If we don’t believe that these things are worth defending, we won’t defend them. And if we don’t know them to be true, we won’t believe that they’re worth defending.
Q: If we continue to misunderstand the motives that drive jihadists, how do you think Islam could shape the West in the 21st century?
A: Jihadist pressures are already reshaping Europe, creating enclaves of Shariah law where local law does not function; that’s why even so-called “honor killings” go unprosecuted in France and Great Britain. Some parts of Europe may well become Islamic states in the 21st century; that’s not going to happen here, but if multicultural political correctness dominates American public life, we could end up surrendering a lot of our civil liberties even while maintaining the outward forms of democracy.
Q: How have the jihadists abused Islam to carry out their terrorist acts, claiming they are empowered by Allah to achieve a global Islamic state?
A: It’s important to recognize that the majority of the victims of jihadism are innocent Muslims. And one would think that the murder of fellow Muslims is an offense against Islam, as well as against moral reason. But moral reason doesn’t have much to do with jihadism, which is built on a foundation on irrationality.
Q: What does the West need to do to fight terrorism besides resorting to war?
A: The first moral obligation we have in this war is to prevent jihadists from murdering innocents; so, there will also be a military dimension to the struggle. But there are many other “fronts” in this war.
We need a much more effective public diplomacy vis-a-vis the Islamic world, demonstrating through radio and television broadcasting, exchange programs and support for civil society groups in the Islamic world that tolerance and civility in public life are good for you.
We need intelligence agencies and a State Department that understand the religiously motivated roots of jihadism. We need alternatives to oil as a transportation fuel, so that we can defend [against] jihadism while building our own economy. I discuss a whole portfolio of policy proposals in my book, and I hope those proposals can play a role in the current presidential campaign.
Q: How is the West disarming itself by not taking religious ideas seriously?
A: If you don’t know the ideas that motivate the enemy, you’re intellectually disarmed. If you don’t believe that your way of life is superior and if you can’t defend that belief rationally, then you’re morally disarmed. If you can’t speak the enemy’s languages and if you don’t understand his civilizational roots and religious convictions, you’re disarmed culturally.
Q: How is jihadism an expression of Islam’s struggle with modernity?
Twenty-first-century jihadism emerged in the Arab Islamic world from the centurylong conflict over how Islam should relate to the political institutions of modernity, including religious freedom and the separation of political and religious authority in the modern state.
That intra-Islamic struggle has now broken out of the House of Islam to engage the entire world. And so the resolution of this intra-Islamic struggle in favor of those Muslims who want to make an Islamic case for civility, tolerance and pluralism is the long-term key to a world in which differences are engaged without mass violence.
Q: Will we change our approach to the war on terrorism depending on who is elected, or are we stuck in this war despite who is in office?
A: We are “stuck,” not because of who is living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, but because war has been declared upon us. And it would be extremely foolish not to acknowledge that. Alas, it is not clear to me that either of the principal Democratic candidates for president (or the Democratic Party as a whole) understands this.
Q: How can the West, particularly America, institute a responsible and responsive government, as you mention in Lesson 9? How can we deter further terrorist attacks?
A: Long-term deterrence involves a transformation of the Arab Islamic world into one in which governments act responsibly internationally and are responsive to their own citizens. That most states in the Arab Islamic world are neither responsible nor responsive and that the Arab Islamic world has a large demographic cohort of young men with bad life prospects, are two reasons which, taken together, explain why that world is a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists.
Q: Were you surprised by any of your findings in your research for the book?
As someone convinced that ideas have consequences, I was struck at how deeply into the past the roots of modern jihadism go. What was going on in the minds of some Islamic theorists in the high Middle Ages has a lot to do with how all of us are forced to behave in airports today.