Thinkers of the Enlightenment, a set of new intellectual attitudes that remade Western culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, set out to understand the world and themselves through reason rather than religion. Their ideas led to massive advances in science, economics and commerce, the arts, and human liberty, which underpin our present prosperity and social freedoms. Since the September 11 attacks, Islam has often been seen as the chief threat to the Enlightenment’s legacy. But is there also something internal to Western intellectual history that leaves us vulnerable to the enemies of reason?
The West has cultivated an ethos of individualism, reason, and tolerance, and an elaborate system in which every actor, from the individual to the nation-state, seeks to resolve conflict through words. The entire system is built on the idea of self-interest. This ethos rejects fanaticism. The alpha male, in our societies, is pacified and groomed to study hard, find a good job, and plan prudently for retirement. “While we in America are drugging our alpha boys with Ritalin,” writes Lee Harris, author of The Suicide of Reason, “the Muslims are doing everything in their power to encourage their alpha boys to be tough, aggressive and ruthless.”
By dulling its people’s instincts to stand up in defence of their own society and its values, the West is committing itself to slow suicide. Sometimes the response to attacks on Western societies based on reason is one of rapprochement, of softening our insistence on respect for the individual and insistence on the primacy of reason in public life. At others it is the reverse—a suspension of the civil liberties and normal legal processes that exemplify Western cultural achievements, in an attempt to protect ourselves from the enemies that travel amongst us. But the way to rescue Western civilisation from its present path of what looks like decline can never be to challenge its tradition of reason and individualism.
What makes America unique, for instance, especially in contrast to Europe, is that the individual matters most. And it is individuals who make cultures and who break them. Social and cultural evolution has always relied on individuals—to reform, persuade, cajole, or force. Culture is formed by the collective agreement of individuals. At the same time, it is crucial that we not fall into the trap of assuming that the survival tactics of individuals living in tribal societies—like lying, hypocrisy, secrecy, violence, intimidation, and so forth—are in the interest of the modern individual or his culture.
I was not born in the West. I was raised with the code of Islam, and from birth I was indoctrinated into a tribal mind-set. Yet I have changed: I have adopted the values of the Enlightenment, and as a result I have to live with the rejection of my native clan as well as the Islamic tribe. Why have I done so? Because in a tribal society, life is cruel and terrible. And I am not alone. Muslims have been migrating to the West in droves for decades now. They are in search of a better life. Yet their tribal and cultural constraints have travelled with them. The multiculturalism and moral relativism that reign in the West have accommodated this.
Many Western leaders are terribly confused about the Islamic world. They are woefully uninformed and often unwilling to confront the tribal nature of Islam. The problem, however, is not too much reason but too little. The enemies of reason within the West are religion and the Romantic movement. It is out of rejection of religion that the Enlightenment emerged; Romanticism was a revolt against reason.
Both the Romantic movement and organised religion have contributed a great deal to the arts and to the spirituality of the Western mind, but they share a hostility to modernity. Moral and cultural relativism (and their popular manifestation, multiculturalism) are the hallmarks of the Romantics. To argue that reason is the mother of the current mess the West is in is to miss the major impact this movement has had, first in the West and perhaps even more profoundly outside the West, particularly in Muslim lands.
Thus, it is not reason that accommodates and encourages the persistent segregation and tribalism of immigrant Muslim populations in the West. It is Romanticism and its modern descendants. Multiculturalism and moral relativism promote an idealisation of tribal life, and have shown themselves to be impervious to empirical criticism. I see today’s Western leaders squandering a great and vital opportunity to compete with the agents of radical Islam for the minds of Muslims, especially those within their borders. But to do so, they must allow reason to prevail over sentiment.
To argue that children born and bred in superstitious cultures that value fanaticism are doomed—and will doom others—to an existence governed by the law of the jungle is to ignore the lessons of the West's own past. There have been periods when the West was less than noble, when it engaged in crusades, inquisitions, witch-burnings, and genocides. Many of those now-Westerners who were born abroad into the law of the jungle, with its alpha males and submissive females, have since become acquainted with the culture of reason and have adopted it. They are even willing to die for it, perhaps with the same fanaticism as the jihadists willing to die for their tribe. While this conflict between Islam and the West is undeniably a deadly struggle between cultures, it is individuals who will determine the outcome.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is author of the bestselling memoir Infidel. She will speak on the ideas of the Enlightenment at the CIS Big Ideas Forum to be held at the Sydney Opera House on Monday.
This text is based on a book review published by the New York Times on 6 January 2008.