A Response to Roger Scruton’s “Islam and the West: Lines of Demarcation,” AZURE 35, Winter 2009
Roger Scruton’s article, as characteristically eloquent and elegant in its prose as it is conservative in its tone, argues that the West, which Scruton sees as engaged in “a protracted and violent struggle with the forces of radical Islam,” is in danger of making too many concessions to its opponent. It has reached this point, he explains, by downplaying the claims of its own cultural inheritance in an effort to show that its intentions are peaceful. Scruton urges the West to assert and more robustly defend seven critical features of that inheritance, each contrasting and even conflicting with traditional Islamic views of society. These are: citizenship as constituted by commitment to the secular rule of law; the idea of nationality as a force for cohesion and identity; the legacy of Christianity; a capacity for irony that looks wryly and tolerantly upon human folly; a capacity for self-criticism that involves allowing oppositional voices to have their say; a propensity to form free associations with representative forms of governance; and the consumption of alcohol.
Before responding to these points, it is important to adjust the perspective in which they are seen. Scruton’s remark that “the West today is involved in a protracted and violent struggle with the forces of radical Islam” is conjoined at the outset with his view that Westerners have lost confidence in their own way of life as a result of a cultural decline that began with the end of the Vietnam War. There are two problematic points here. The first is that Islam is now itself a major Western religion, as a result of the immigration to Western states of significant numbers of people from Muslim countries, together with their relatively high birth rates. Accordingly, the curious hybrid of a geography versus a religion denoted by “Islam and the West” sounds increasingly odd and obscures the fact that the majority of Western Muslims accept many of the “critical features” of the Western comities of which they are now citizens. This is notably true in the United States.
Moreover, Islamists are a minority of Muslims, especially in Europe and North America. Among Islamists, too, an even smaller minority are extremists who seek to achieve their ends through violence. The more intelligent among these latter must know that they are not going to succeed, and therefore the criminal acts of mass murder they perform and continue to seek to perform have to be seen as expressions of resentment, frustration, impotence, and futility; a desire to lash out and cause hurt—very like the behavior of a petulant child, though writ horrifically large. Accordingly, it over-dignifies matters to describe “the West” as locked in a “struggle” (curiously, a word Scruton elsewhere claims to dislike) with radical Islam. The murderous fringe of political Islam is dangerous because of its zealotry and disdain for human life, but opposing, containing, or trying to defeat it is a matter of a twofold strategy of policing on the one hand and seeking to solve the problems that cause it on the other—most of which (and here Scruton is quite right) are inherent to the political and social culture of Islam itself.
The second problem of perspective lies with Scruton’s belief that the changes that have occurred in his own and other Western countries during his lifetime represent a decline in a variety of standards and commitments. This is the conservative’s standard complaint and regret, prompted as much by a form of nostalgia as by adherence to reflective criteria of the good, the right, and the valuable. Conservative thinkers are of course right in some respects, notably in the case of the decline of educational standards, but they are wrong in thinking that those respects are all respects, and in not recognizing the emergence of new positives required by a new world.
Finally, I do not recognize what Scruton describes as a “loss of confidence” in Western values and in the central features of its inheritance, such as the rule of law, respect for liberties and rights, pluralism, individual autonomy, and secularism. These are robust features of the West, as evidenced by the powerful opposition to government efforts in the United Kingdom and the United States to cut corners on civil liberties in an effort to enhance antiterrorist and anticriminal security. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, has won a number of cases against the American government (under the second Bush administration) in connection with warrantless surveillance, and in the United Kingdom a barrage of criticism from all quarters of the political spectrum together with national campaigns has obliged the government to resile from legislation that compromises aspects of civil liberties. This is evidence of a robust liberal culture, not of decay.
A.C. Grayling is a professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a supernumerary fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford.