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On Wars...and Wars of Ideas | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | September 14, 2007

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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 when chosen.

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 Regensburg Lecture.

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 his end.

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 Yulo

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 website.

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