On Wars...and Wars of Ideas | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | September 14, 2007 | IgnatiusInsight.com
On Wars...and Wars of Ideas | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | September 14, 2007
All wars are first fought
out—or, better, argued about--in the mind. Because they are in minds and
not on battlefields these wars are not violent. They can even be friendly. Wars
are not caused by wars. They are caused by ideas. Ideas as such are good. We
could not eliminate ideas that cause wars if we wanted to, though we can
understand why they can be wrong. But we understand this wrongness only with
another idea. The adventure of the mind is to find out which ideas are true.
The adventure goes on all the time. The mind also needs to find what is true in
ideas that are false since no idea exists that does not contain some truth.
The ideas that cause wars
are not initially conceived as militant, but as an understanding of reality.
Even then, they do not cause conflict until put into effect and meet
resistance, ultimately from other ideas. The purpose of war is to establish the
truth or superiority of an idea. Ideas do not always win just because they are
true. One suspects that true ideas often lose. This is why, behind ideas and
their carrying out, lies divine providence, which can bring out the good that
is found in what is otherwise evil. Evil is ultimately to be rejected and punished
Any movement to "abolish
war," however noble and high sounding, misses the point that wars are not
simply external things to our souls. Even "defensive wars," that is, wars
designed to keep a way of life from outside attacks, depends on thought, on the
validity of ideas that inspire one's way of living. Defensive wars, in the
proper sense, are the upholding of ideas that have a claim on truth against
those who would deny them by force. Wars are not simply "caused" by ideas, but
by wills that choose to carry them out in a concrete way. Without wills, ideas
would never get out of the mind; yet within the mind, they present what can be
willed. This is why ideas as such are, while clear to themselves, hidden from
the world until they are first made known to the will, then chosen by some
human person to be carried into effect.
We live in a tradition that
has sought to eliminate wars not by solving intellectual issues, which is often
considered hopeless, but by preventing ideas from taking political effect. We
tend not to think ideas are really that important. We suspect that none are
really true. Many think that the very claim to truth in ideas is the cause of
all wars. We call this policy "tolerance" in which we deliberately keep ideas,
untested, in the privacy of our minds, where they keep churning away. Ideas
themselves have a dynamic potential. They are rightly never content just to
stay inside of us. Our insides seek the light of day.
We will be at "peace," as it
is called, if we tolerate everyone who disagrees with us, provided he returns
the compliment. If there are those unwilling to do so, we think we can "defend"
ourselves against them in order that we can discuss or dialogue about the
differences. This is a noble effort. But what we cannot do is to fail to come
to terms with ideas that claim to be true and seek to expand themselves into
the world by means other than ideas. The solution to the problem is not to say
that all ideas are fanatical or wrong. The solution is to take ideas seriously
enough to state them properly and to have a philosophy that itself is
sufficiently realistic to comprehend why error is attractive—again,
almost always because it has some truth to it. The idea that there is no truth
is itself an origin of war, an idea that denies that it too is an idea.
In the Washington Post for September 11, 2007, Anne Applebaum commented on
what is purported to be Bin Laden's most recent pronouncement. Bin Laden talks
about the superiority of his Islam because it has lower taxes and a higher
individual morality than is prevalent in the West. Applebaum mentions the
number of Germans who are being converted to Islam. In a letter to the
September 2007 issue of Crisis magazine, a lady reported that she knew American women who
were being converted to Islam because of the wimpiness and lack of manliness in
Americans. I have seen the same said of converts in Britain.
Whatever be the fact of
whether these were actually Bin Laden's words (and there is some doubt about
this), I intend here, for the sake of argument at least, to assume they are his
and represent, as they do, a sincerely held body of ideas, however widespread
they are is always a subject of controversy. We cannot understand a man like
Bin Laden in terms other than what he believes--not according to what our
social science tells us about him.
The most salient and
striking line of the document cited in Applebaum's essay is this: "Al-Qaeda's
long-term goal is to convert Americans and other Westerners to its extreme
version of Islam." Of course, Bin Laden, or whoever wrote this document, does
not say that its own version of Islam is at all an "extreme." He is doing what
his understanding of his faith tells him to do. He claims to be the authentic
interpreter. He does not think that he is himself in any way an aberration.
In one sense, it is our
problem (unless we agree with him) to figure out how to prevent Bin Laden from
succeeding in his mission. This is what a defensive war is about, that not
everyone shall be subject to such ideas now made aggressively manifest in the
world. But the real issue is the need to confront the truth of the claim
itself. This confrontation we are very reluctant to do because of our theories
of toleration and ecumenism. As long as this dealing with ideas is not taken
seriously, the claim will reappear again and again in history. This is not
Islam's first manifestation of militancy. It has a mission to complete its
ideas in the external order. It has a comprehensible vision of world rule. This
need to confront ideas was essentially what the Pope sought to do in the
In the original report that
I saw from ABC News (September 7), Bin Laden said that the two ways to end the
present war are a) "to continue to escalate (on his side) the killing and
fighting against you," or b) "to do away with the American democratic system of
government." That Islam will change its ideas is not one of the options given
for stopping the war. The first way is clearly an appeal to revulsion from
seeing American and other troops killed on television. It is a shrewd
recognition that his Islam, that has no significant military force, has great
political and military shrewdness. What is not possible to defeat on the ground
can be defeated in the minds of his enemies. He understands ideas, in other
words, and the changeableness of democratic opinion. War is a means to achieve
The second solution is
simply to do away with the American system of government. Again, he is
suggesting that the Americans themselves do away with it as an immoral form of
rule. It is this form of government with its political will that Ben Ladin
evidently sees as his most immediate and perhaps last opposition to his
conquest of the world in the name of Allah. He must still deal with Russia, the
Chinese, and the Hindus, of course, but this will be much simpler if his
immediate objective since 9/11 is rendered ineffective or even converted.
However outlandish this view may look to us, it has a certain feasibility to it
if we grant that religious ideas assumed to be true and never really combated
intellectually retain their force of moving souls.
Bin Laden does not invite us
to join "extremist" Islam. Rather he says simply, "I invite you to embrace
Islam." This is an "invitation," though obviously behind it is the record of
those who have been defeated by Islamic armies and the almost totally closed
societies that have resulted. Whenever a people become Muslim, by whatever
means, they dwell in a kind of peace and worship of Allah that is the purpose
of Islam in the world. This is the purpose that Bin Laden claims to be is
pursuing. When we interpret him as being motivated by power or fanaticism, we
miss the force and meaning of his presence. It is the power of an idea that
claims to be true. It is this "peace," as he says, to which we are "invited."
Bin Laden adds, as a kind of
amusing reference to our mortgage rates, that: "There are no taxes in Islam,
but rather there is a limited Zakaat [alms] totaling 2.5%." The implication of
this latter figure is that Islam does not levy taxes on its citizens to fight
the war as we do. Its fighters are doing so out of moral and religious
purposes. They are not "hired" guns or bound by our "rules of war." They are
pursuing a religious goal and are considered heroes if they kill enemies, or
seen as martyrs if they kill themselves in pursuing their holy cause.
This report is said to have
begun with the words "praise to Allah and his law of retaliation, an eye for an
eye, a tooth for a tooth and the killer is killed." It is a happy world. But
again it is a claim to be acting correctly in the pursuit of Bin Laden's goal.
This law of retaliation is an ancient law, in existence before Islam. It is
sometimes a principle of survival. What is significant is that it is itself
seen to be a praise of Allah to practice it. The Greek and Christian
alternatives are naturally passed over in silence. He does not have to answer
to them, because they have found no way intellectually to make him to do so.
Again this principle is a justification for the violence that we see in Islam,
one that flows from certain theological and philosophical principles. The
praise of Allah can make violence against the enemies just if Allah wills it,
as he evidently does. The question that really must be faced is just who is
this Allah who can be praised in this way?
The brunt of Applebaum's
analysis is that "militant Islam " is the problem. Her worry is not so much the
intellectual and moral attraction of Islam in the modern world but that of the
millions of Muslims in the world, some few are terrorists with relatively
little relation to "moderate Islam." The problem becomes a security problem
because of the conversion of westerners to Islam, out of whom a few will be
convinced to follow the terrorist agenda, as has already happened. The thesis
is that someone with an Irish or Italian name who becomes a Muslim is far more
dangerous than a Muslim with the name Mohammed, as the latter can be more
easily spotted by security. No doubt, this is a legitimate concern.
But the significance of the
Ben Ladin letter, taken at face value, is not so much the danger of a few
convert terrorists. It is the confident appeal to the truth of Islam itself.
Islam has no hesitation in telling the world to become Muslim. I suppose we can
say the Bush concept of the war is universally to encourage Muslims to become
"democratic." This too is a war of ideas. It is based on the idea that only a
few Muslims are terrorists. The idea is that there is an understanding of Islam
that is not terrorist. Bin Laden, no doubt, thinks his understanding is the
only one and the correct one.
Much has been written on why
so-called "non-terrorists" do not stand up for their view of Islam. This
standing up would presumably have the immediate political purpose of calming
the turbulence. Whether it can be shown that Bin Laden is wrong from within
Islamic ideas itself is a question of ideas. The broader question remains,
however, "What is Islam?" It is a
claim to a certain view of God, man, and the world that purports to be true.
When Bin Laden invites us to be Muslim, he is not just being brash or
fanatical, I think. We underestimate the power of this idea if we do not see
that it is what lies behind the movements in the external order stemming from
it. Wars on the ground will continue as long as ideas are left unattended to because
of the belief that they are just ideas.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Links/Articles:
The Soul of the West | An Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Tom Burnett: A Hero on Flight 93 | An interview with Deena Burnett, author of Fighting Back
On the Term "Islamo-Fascism" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Spartans, Traitors, and Terrorists | Dr. Jose Yulo
Plato's Ring in the Sudan: How Freedom Begets Isolation of the Soul | Dr. Jose Yulo
Martyrs and Suicide Bombers | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The One War, The Real War | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Wars Without Violence? | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Echo of Melos: How Ancient Honor Unmasks Islamic Terror | Dr. Jose
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning. His most recent books are
The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human
Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and
The Regensburg Lecture.
Read more of his essays on his
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
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and news in the Church!