A review of The West and the Rest. By Roger Scruton.

Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2002.

Roger Scruton is one of England’s best conservative writers and philosophers. He is the author of several important volumes, and for many years edited The Salisbury Review. His numerous articles and books on philosophy, politics, and social commentary have put him at the forefront of the intellectual and cultural debates of recent times. His writing is always worth examining closely, and this new volume is no exception.

Although relatively brief (161 pages) this volume is densely packed with careful analysis and incisive observation. Subtitled “Globalization and the Terrorist Threat,” this book explores a number of related themes. A major thesis is how modern Western democracies differ from other types of societies in general, and the Islamic world in particular. His historical and philosophical investigations provide a framework in which to judge both the September 11 attacks, and the ongoing threat of Islamic terrorism.

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The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat by Scruton, Roger (Author) Amazon logo

He begins by noting that social bonding can take place by means of either religion or politics. In the pluralistic West, social cohesion is mainly found in the form of the social contract, whereas in the Islamic world, religion alone provides that basis. Roman law and the Christian religion helped provide the basis for the social contract, as well as bring about the Western conception of the demarcation of the religious and political spheres.

Islamic societies on the other hand know of no separation of religious and secular authorities, with religion the sole basis of the state. Just as the Communist party was a law onto itself, so “Islam aims to control the state without being a subject of the state”. As a result, there are no political or social mediating structures between Allah and His will (Islam) and the submissive Muslim (Islamic citizen).

The freedoms of a democracy, including the freedom to oppose the state, to vote for alternative parties, and to freely express dissenting opinions are thus not to be found in Islamic states. In theocracies, such dissent is just not possible. And given that Islam means submission, the good Muslim is an obedient Muslim.

Both secular Western societies and Muslim societies have notions of membership. Membership in the West is made up of the voluntary, the tribal, the linguistic and the political. Muslim membership is credal, based only on the religious. The political process of the West allows for the separation of society from the state, while there is no such distinction in Islamic jurisdictions. Thus the political is the religious, whereas the genius of Western democracies is to separate the political from the rest of social and personal life.

Democratic citizenship helps to limit state power and deter totalitarian temptations. However as the onslaught of radical individualism and secularism sweep the West, former loyalties and the sense of social membership are quickly giving way. As the concept of citizenship disappears, social membership is strained and the basis of democracies is undermined. In the light of such social and political fragmentation, the religious membership of Islamic societies stands in sharp contrast.

However Islamic unity is based on force and power, not consent. Religious toleration, taken for granted in the West, is a foreign concept in Islamic societies. Islamic law applies to every aspect of life, and leads to the denial of the political. All is religious, and mediating structures are unheard of.

While Christianity teaches us to give to Caesar what is his, in Islamic thinking nothing is Caesar’s, everything is Allah’s. All is religious because all is Allah’s. Thus Islamic membership is all-embracing and all-demanding.

But Western membership, or citizenship is unraveling, making Western democracies vulnerable and lacking in direction. Thus the inability of Western nations to unite against the real dangers of terrorism. Thus the mistaken notions of moral equivalence, where ruthless Muslim dictatorships are seen as no better or no worse than Western leadership. Thus the real possibility of the continued demise of the West coupled with a resurgent rise of Islam.

Yes there are exceptions, such as authoritarian democracies (e.g Singapore) and democratic Muslim states (Turkey being the only real example). But Islamic nations are inherently undemocratic. The political freedoms we enjoy in the West are largely unheard of in Islamic societies. And while the majority of Muslims do not support terrorism and murder, enough do to make for a lengthy battle between the West and Islam.

In the past Christians may have wrongly used the edge of the sword to command loyalty to the faith, but that has always been a perversion of Christ’s gospel, not a fulfillment of it. But for a Muslim to take up the sword for Islam against the unbeliever is both sensible for a member of a theocracy and endorsed (at least in some interpretations) in the Koran.

Indeed, terrorism and conquest have a long history in Islam. And modern Western-trained Muslims, backed with Western technology and the revenue of Arabian oil wells, have made for the kind of terrorism witnessed in New York and Bali. Many explanations and justifications for such terrorism have been put forward, but the truth is, as Scruton documents, “Islamism is not a cry of distress from the ‘wretched of the earth.’ It is an implacable summon to war, issued by globetrotting middle-class Muslims”.

Since opposition cannot be found in Islamic countries, only a re-invigorated West can adequately deal with the terrorist threat (and Muslim terrorism against other Muslims is not uncommon). But this requires a renewal of the idea of citizenship and community, and a renunciation of radical versions of individualism and secularism. The religious (mainly Judeo-Christian) basis of Western democracies needs to be revived and encouraged not just in the private sphere but in the public as well.

Thus Scruton’s book is not only a warning about the anti-democratic makeup of Islamic societies, but a wake-up call to the West to re-explore its roots and re-establish its moral and cultural foundations. Without a revived West the prospects for the war against Islamic terrorism look bleak. But this volume helps to remind us that the stakes are high and some things are worth fighting for. Hopefully this book will serve as a much-needed call to action by the West. If not, we have much to fear from the future.

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