How Western Liberals Helped Create Modern Islamism
by John J. O’Neill
I vividly recall, just a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, seeing a photograph of the Bin Laden family, or some of the younger members of the family, on holiday in Sweden. The year, I believe, was 1971. Osama was there, as were about fifteen of his brothers (and half-brothers) and sisters. All of them were dressed in typical “gear” of the time, bell-bottomed jeans and tight pullovers. Some of the boys had long hair, as did the girls. None of these were veiled, or betrayed in her attire the slightest hint of Islamic influence. They could have been a group of youngsters from any western country.
Many if not all the newspapers published this photograph, and the question they were asking was: What could have turned Osama from the easy-going modern youth of the picture into the sworn and fanatical enemy of everything modern and everything western? In the opinion of the present writer however the newspapers were asking the wrong question. What they should have been pondering was: What could have transformed not an individual, but a large section of a civilization, into the sworn enemy of everything modern and western? For the journey taken by Bin Laden in the years between 1971 and 2001 was taken also by many millions of his co-religionists throughout the Islamic world; and the thirty to forty years that have elapsed since the 1970s have seen one Muslim society after another systematically reject the modern world and turn the clock back to the seventh century. Whilst by the late 60s, women all over the Islamic world had adopted western fashions and lifestyles, the tide was dramatically reversed by the late 70s, when traditional Islam, with its strict dress code and social outlook, again bestirred itself. One would now be hard-pressed to find any Islamic country where the easy-going attitudes of the 1950s and 60s still hold sway.
What then has caused this cultural revolution? A clue, I believe, lies in the fact — almost universally ignored by commentators — that the West has experienced its own cultural revolution in the same period. But the West’s revolution has been of a very different kind. Whilst the Islamic world was regressing deep into the seventh century, the West was plunging headlong into an age of unparalleled license and sexual permissiveness. The fact that these two revolutions happened in parallel with each other is not, I hold, a coincidence: the two are inextricably linked. The revolution is Islam was in very large part a reaction to and against the revolution in the West.
Many commentators are aware of the story of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian founder of the Islamic Brotherhood, a radical Islamic extremist who is now widely regarded as the spiritual founder of Al Qaida. Qutb spent much of 1949 in the town of Greeley, Colorado, where he studied educational theory and practice. He wrote about his experiences in his book, The America I Have Seen, almost every page of which gives expression to his abhorrence of American society. Most of all, Qutb was shocked by what he regarded as the open and flaunted sexuality of American women. Their mannerisms, their expressions, their dress, all spoke to him of a deep-seated depravity. But this was 1949, long before the permissive society of the 60s and 70s; long before Oh Calcutta and Woodstock. By modern standards, the America visited by Qutb was extremely conservative. Marriage was the norm. Women stayed at home and raised the children. Illegitimacy was unusual, and sexual promiscuity frowned upon. The cinema and the press were strictly censored. Yet Qutb found it all abhorrent. Even an innocent dance is a church basement was seen by him as an occasion of lewd depravity.
There is no question that Qutb was an extreme conservative — a conservative moreover coming from an unusually backward country, and from a cultural environment more restrictive of women than any in the world. There is no question also that Qutb represented a mode of thinking that could have been found in any century of Islamic history. In the early twentieth century, and before that, Qutb’s views would have been the norm. But it is important to remember that by 1949 Qutb was a voice crying in the wilderness. No one was listening: For while Qutb ranted and raved about western decadence, the whole Arab and Islamic world was moving to embrace the West as never before. From Casablanca to Jakarta, Muslim women began to abandon the veil, and as the 1950s progressed, western dress and social attitudes became more and more the norm. By the mid-60s it was possible to walk through Cairo or Tehran and see a clear majority of women dressed in western fashion. The power of the mosque, it seemed, and of the imam, was fading fast.
But what a difference a decade makes! Or should I say, two or three decades.
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The West as a whole became aware of the new Islamism in 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini made his historic flight from Paris to Tehran and began the process of turning a modern semi-industrialised society into a backward theocracy. This may have been the point at which the West took notice, but it needs to be stressed that much of the groundwork had been laid in the previous decade. Yet that groundwork was laid as much in the West as in the Muslim world: For it was in the late 60s and early 70s that the societies of Western Europe and North America finally severed the link with their Judeo-Christian past. This was the decade that saw the dawn of the Permissive Society. Within little more than ten years socialist or liberal administrations in almost every western country had legalized abortion, relaxed censorship, provided for easy divorce, and introduced legislation which essentially gave financial encouragement to single parenthood. This rapidly led to the decline of marriage and sky-rocketing rates of illegitimacy. A spin-off of the latter, not felt so much at the time, was social breakdown on an unparalleled scale.
These social and cultural changes were accompanied by the rise, amongst the intelligentsia, of a militantly secular culture, which seemed to lose no opportunity to “debunk” traditional Christianity, whether in the movies, on television or in the newspapers; and which promoted a culture of sneering condescension directed at the beliefs of practising Christians. Literature and art seemed to be overwhelmingly controlled by such persons, who were more than anxious to heap accolades and awards on any production that took a swipe at Christianity. Increasingly, Christians had to endure the most obscene fun being made of their faith in all kinds of arenas. God, the intellectual elite of the West proclaimed, was dead; and the Brave New World they were constructing was right out of Aldous Huxley’s famous dystopia of the same name. Sexual pleasure was the purpose of life, and if you weren’t part of it, you were worse than stupid.
Christians, being followers of a teacher whose primary injunction was forbearance, seemed prepared to take all of this, or to make their protests peaceful and law-abiding. The reaction in the Muslim world was rather different. It would perhaps be superficial to quote the plethora of writings emanating from the Islamic world during the 1970s and 80s (or from the contemporary world for that matter) decrying the decadence and godlessness of the West. The point is, that from the mid-1970s young Muslims began to listen to these voices, whereas previously they did not. And this is the situation that now prevails. The writings of Islamist radicals rage against the “godless” West; and statements of terrorist leaders and individual suicide bombers speak of the holy task they have set themselves in destroying the “enemies of God.” Islamist websites make it perfectly clear that they regard the intellectual leaders of the West, the radical secularists, as engaged in a war against God, and that they believe them therefore to be legitimate targets.
It is important to note here that the Islamist preoccupation with this topic is rarely reported in the popular media, especially the leftist media, which prefers to find what it wants to find in the Islamists’ motivations. We are constantly told, for example, in the pages of the New York Times and the Guardian, that the casus belli is “the War in Iraq”, “the Palestinian problem”, or “western imperialism.” Yet in the years leading up to the September 11 attacks there was no war in Iraq, and the Islamists of Sudan who during the 1980s and 90s slaughtered perhaps two million non-Muslims in the south of the country were not in any way worried by the situation in Palestine. Nor were the Islamists of Algeria particularly concerned with the Palestinian issue when they murdered perhaps quarter of a million of their own people during the 90s. And even after 9/11 the Palestinian problem hardly figured at all in the demands or statements made by Bin Laden and his cohorts. On the contrary, these statements were full of anger at the “atheism” of the “infidels” and the decadence of the West, which they vowed to resist. If western imperialism was the problem, then it was the cultural imperialism of the secular, anti-religious liberal elite. It is true, of course, in more modern times, the Islamists have on occasion used the language of leftist westerners for propaganda purposes — invariably for statements directed at western audiences. They have learned, for example, to use Blair’s intervention in Iraq as an “official” reason for attacks against Britain — no matter that Saddam Hussein, the man overthrown by Bush and Blair, was a great hater of Islam, and the murderer of more Muslims than anyone since Genghis Khan. If the Iraq War can be used to stir up internal conflict among the infidels, so much the better.
Yet can even the most doctrinaire leftist deny that modern Britain, with its spiralling crime, family breakdown, vulgarity and celebrity obsession, and general social disintegration, is an easy place to hate and a difficult one to identify with? And surely only the most wilfully blind would fail to see that the militantly secularist world-view promoted on television and the media is profoundly alienating to anyone from a traditional or religious background.
None of this is an attempt to “explain” radical Islamism as the fault of the West. Still less is it an attempt to in any way justify the beliefs or actions of these people. The Islamists do not occupy any kind of high moral ground and have no answers to the world’s problems. None of them are moral people, least of all in a sexual sense. The Paradise they aspire to, after all, is unmistakably sensual, where they look forward to being pleasured to the end of time with their 72 dark-eyed houris. And the ideology espoused by the Islamists is in no way new. It is not a creation of the West. The Islamists represent a revival of mainstream Islamic thought; a theology which has historically not only justified aggressive war, but regarded it is a moral duty. Yet until the 1960s this way of thinking, and Islam itself, was essentially on the way out. Throughout the Islamic world the West was admired and imitated. Western culture was on the ascendant and western attitudes viewed as morally better than what Islam had created in the past. An age of reason, a veritable Enlightenment, was on the point of being born. Yet the moral nosedive taken by western societies in the late 60s and 70s reversed everything. Hollywood movies, previously standard-bearers of western morality (think of Casablanca, for example), became, almost overnight, obnoxious vehicles of profanity and obscenity. Slowly but surely, as the West began to reject all forms of moral restraint, the mood in the Muslim world (and in other eastern cultures) began to change. The West, hitherto admired, was now regarded with horror. And this is the mood which still prevails. True, neither Buddhists nor Hindus (nor conservative Christians) strap bombs to their bodies and commit mass murder. Their faiths are too strongly pacifist for that. Yet in the Islamic sphere things were different, and once again people began to listen to the Sayyid Qutbs of the world.
I would be remiss if I ended without mentioning one or two of the ramifications of the present situation. Not only have the western liberals revived an ancient fanaticism in the Muslim world, but they have created — in several ways — openings by which this fanaticism has been able to reach the West and flourish here. Apart from the criminally-misguided policy of massive and virtually uncontrolled immigration from the Middle East (multiculturalism is a central plank of leftist/secularist thought), the policy of marginalising Christianity has also created a moral and spiritual vacuum of the most dangerous kind. A newspaper article in a British daily shortly after 9/11, titled “Islam’s Armani Army”, dealt with young middle-class professionals in England who had embraced Islam. The striking thing about these young people was that they all came from committedly secularist backgrounds — some of their parents were left-wing Labour Party members, others were Communists and Socialists of various hues. It was clear that these young people, completely cut off from their own cultural roots, had found in Islam a religious identity they had never previously possessed.
It is no exaggeration to say that the whole leftist response to the Islamist threat is loaded with irony. So, for example, whilst they profess to be the side most anxious to find reasons as to “why they hate us,” they are also the side most resolutely determined to ignore those reasons. There exists an almost surreal refusal on the part of the left to look at the facts or to even listen to a word the Islamists say, preferring instead to put into the minds of the Islamists concerns which are entirely their own. A striking, and obnoxious, example of this was seen in Michael Moore’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Why, he asked, had the Islamists attacked the people of New York, who had not even voted for George Bush? The assumption on Moore’s part that the Islamists had picked the “wrong” target was predicated on the notion that they were some kind of socialist movement concerned with the capitalist exploitation of their homelands. Not only did Moore fail to read a single line of what the Islamists have been saying for years, but he, along with the entire left, have failed to understand that they themselves are the primary cause of the Islamists’ hatred and contempt for the West. Thus whilst calling for us to “understand” the Islamists’ motives, they continue to promote ever more extreme secularist policies, such as gay marriage and gay adoption, which only further inflames the Islamists’ rage.
The policies pursued by the left (and I include here zealots like Richard Dawkins of no overtly political affiliation), far from creating a secularist utopia, are in danger of producing a theocracy more fanatical and more obscurantist than anything Europe has ever experienced. The modern left in fact constitutes an enormous fifth column placed right at the heart of the West; a fifth column actively and openly involved in undermining every attempt to defend the freedoms and humanitarian traditions it professes to believe in. There are many historical reasons for this, but that is not the subject of the present paper. What needs to be stressed here is that, should the left have its way, the Islamization of Europe and America is inevitable. Indeed, only two outcomes are possible: Either Europe will rediscover its Christian identity and survive, or the continent will become Muslim. The next decade will be decisive. Already there are signs, admittedly tentative, of a Christian revival.
This will continue, but whether it will be quick enough or strong enough is doubtful. If not, then the Caliphate of Europe beckons.
Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization, is published by Felibri Publications. For information, see the Felibri website.