Whatís So Good About America

DINESH DíSOUZA

Behind the physical attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was an intellectual attack ó an assault not just on American foreign policy but also on the principle of freedom. We have failed so far to effectively answer the strongest version of this Islamic critique. Here is the argument that Americans should be making to people in the Islamic world.

Behind the physical attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was an intellectual attack — an assault not just on American foreign policy but also on the principle of freedom. So far, the Bush administration's military response has been reasonably effective against the al Qaeda network. But our intellectual response has been weak. This matters, because ultimately it is not enough to shut down the terrorist camps. We must also stop the "jihad factories," the mosques and educational institutions that are turning out tens of thousands of aspiring suicide bombers. We cannot kill all these people; we have to change their minds. So far, however, America is making few converts in the Muslim world. The problem is that we have not effectively answered the strongest version of the Islamic critique of the United States. Usually Americans seek to defend their society by appealing to its shared principles. Thus, they say that America is a free society, or a prosperous society, or a diverse and pluralistic culture, or a nation that gives women the same rights as men. The most intelligent Islamic critics acknowledge all this, but they dismiss it as worthless triviality.

One of the leading theoreticians of Islamic fundamentalism is the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb. Qutb, who has been called "the brains behind bin Laden," argues that the West is a society based on freedom while the Islamic world is based on virtue. In his books Qutb argues: Look at how badly freedom is often used in the West. Look at the pervasive materialism, triviality, vulgarity, and sexual promiscuity. Islamic societies may be poor, Qutb says, but we are trying to implement the will of God. Qutb argues that Islamic laws are based on divine law, and God's law is necessarily higher than any human law. Virtue, Qutb insists, is ultimately a higher principle than freedom.

The Islamic critique as exemplified by 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 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 at the outset that, in a free society, freedom will frequently be used badly. The Islamic critics have a point when they deplore our high crime rates 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 that there is a considerable amount of vice, licentiousness, and vulgarity in a free society. Given the warped timber of humanity, freedom becomes a forum for the expression of 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 available option. Even amidst the temptations that 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 for the pursuit of both, a pursuit rendered all the more meaningful and profound because success is not guaranteed, it has to be won through personal striving.

By contrast, the authoritarian society that Islamic fundamentalists advocate undermines the possibility of virtue. If the supply of virtue is insufficient in free societies, it is almost nonexistent in Islamic societies because coerced virtues are not virtues at all. Consider the woman who is required to wear a veil. There is no modesty in this, because the woman is being compelled. Compulsion cannot produce virtue, it can 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 theocratic societies such as Iran, the absence of freedom signals the absence of virtue.

This is the argument that Americans should make to people in the Islamic world. It is a mistake to presume that Muslims would be unreceptive to it. Islamic, which has common roots with Judaism and Christianity, respects the autonomy of the individual soul. Salvation, for Muslims no less than for Jews and Christians, is based on the soul choosing freely to follow God. Thus we can make the case to Muslims that freedom is not simply a secular invention; rather, freedom is a gift from God. And because freedom is the necessary precondition for virtue, we can feel confident in asserting that our free society is not simply richer, more varied, and more tolerant: It is also morally superior to the fundamentalists' version of Islamic society.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Dinesh D'Souza. "Whatís So Good About America." National Review (July 3, 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Review. To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232.

THE AUTHOR

Dinesh D'Souza is the Robert and Karen Rishwain Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. D'Souza has been called one of the "top young public-policy makers in the country" by Investor’s Business Daily. His areas of research include the economy and society, civil rights and affirmative action, cultural issues and politics, and higher education. Dinesh D'Souza's latest book is The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11. He is also the author of: Letters to a Young Conservative, What's So Great about America, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus; The End of Racism; Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader; and, most recently, The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence. Dinesh D'Souza is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Visit his website here.

Copyright © 2002 National Review


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