James Burnham and the Challenge to the West
by Ibn Warraq
[Talk given at Yale University, November 14, 2014 at the “Conference on James Burnham’s Suicide of the West” ]
First, I should like to thank The William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale for inviting me. I should also like to thank my friends and colleagues whose ideas have profoundly influenced what I am going to say today: Sebastian Gorka, Katherine Gorka, Robert Reilly, and Hugh Fitzgerald.
James Burnham’s book Suicide of the West, is full of insights on US Foreign Policy, which I find relevant to this day. In fact one has only to substitute “Islam” for “communism” in many of his observations to realise their continuing pertinence. I shall limit myself to one of his observations from Chapter XII, Dialectic of Liberalism:
“The communists divide the world into “the zone of peace” and “the zone of war”. The zone of peace means the region that is already subject to communist rule; and the label signifies that within their region the communists will not permit any political tendency, violent or non-violent, whether purely internal or assisted from without, to challenge their rule. The “zone of war” is the region where communist rule is not yet, but in due course will be established; and within the zone of war the communists promote, assist and where possible lead political tendencies, violent or non-violent, democratic or revolutionary, that operate against non-communist rule. Clear enough, these definitions. You smash the Hungarian Freedom Fighters, and support Fidel Castro; you know where you are going.” Pp.227-228.
The above could easily have been a dictionary definition of the Islamic doctrine of Jihad, and its notions of “Dar al-Islam” –the Zone of Peace, and Dar-al Harb –Zone of War” Now onto my main points:
Our foreign policy should be guided by understanding and admitting the following realities:
- We are engaged in a war of ideas, with our principal enemy: an ideology.
An ideology that will not collapse out of economic incompetence.
- The ideology of the terrorists is religiously based and derived from Islam and its founding texts, the Koran, hadith, and the sunna, and the history of the early caliphate.
- One, but not the only, way we know this is because they tell us so. First , if you want to understand the enemy “Read what they say”. They constantly justify their acts with accurate and apt citations from the Koran and Hadith. They also refer to, among others, Sayyid Qutb’s work Milestones, Abdullah Azzam’s Defense of the Muslim Lands, S. K. Malik’s The Quranic Concept of Power, and Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner. Some of the latter have doctorates from recognized Islamic universities, and to hear John Kerry trying to tell them their ideas have nothing to do with Islam is comical.
- Islamic terrorism is not caused by “poverty, lack of education, sexual deprivation, psychological problems, or lack of economic opportunity..”, Western Imperialism, or Western decadence, or the Arab-Israeli conflict.
- There are two kinds of Jihad: terrorism, and slow penetration of Western institutions subverting Western laws and customs from within.
- Ignorance, naivety, arrogance, political correctness , sheer laziness, sentimentality, and Saudi, Qatari and Iranian money have led to Islamist successes in penetrating Western institutions, from the Voice of America, The Pentagon, CIA, FBI, DHS, PBS, to the universities and colleges where Islamic propaganda is shamelessly and openly disseminated.
- While groups such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, and others are non-state actors, they are funded by states such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. These three countries, for example, also provide the necessary Islamic support, framework, and propaganda that spews forth anti-Western and and anti-American hatred. They should be warned or face the consequences.
- It is also important to point out that it is not something we have done that is impelling the Islamists. Constantly apologising, Mr President, is pointless; they will not like or respect you the more.
- We must learn the lessons of the cold war, for there are striking similarities between the Islamist ideology and that of Soviet Russia [Cf B.Russell, Jules Monnerot, Maxime Rodinson]
- Speak out in support of the Christians who are being persecuted, and being killed almost every day in Islamic countries. Profound importance of this act of solidarity not realised by many in West.
- In order to succeed we need urgently to recover our civilizational self-confidence.
- One way we can fight jihadist ideology is to undermine their certainties, and one can accomplish this with Koranic Criticism. In the West, Spinoza hastened the Enlightenment by his Biblical Criticism.
There is an obvious need to understand the Islamic ideology to understand the mindset of the Islamic terrorists. Terrorism is not caused by poverty, and so on. It is their ideology that motivates them and is the source of its moral legitimacy. Without it, terrorism cannot exist.Terrorists are produced by a totalitarian ideology justifying terrorism.
While America has had some impressive tactical successes, and has managed to kill Osama bin Laden (May 2011) and Anwar al-Awlaki (in Sept.2011) it still fails to understand their goals, their ideology. The reasons for this failure are many:
First, there is a reluctance to address the religious inspiration of the acts of terrorism,to admit that their ideology is derived from Islam and its founding texts, the Koran, the Hadith, the Sunna and the early history of the Caliphate. Instead, the present administration exhorts us to use euphemisms such as “violent extremist”. “Whereas The 9/11 Commission Report, published under the presidency of George W. Bush in July 2004 as a bipartisan product, had used the word Islam 322 times, Muslim 145 times, jihad 126 times, and jihadist 32 times,The National Intelligence Strategy of the United States, issued by the Obama administration in August 2009, used the term Islam 0 times, Muslim 0 times, jihad 0 times.” Now Obama’s policy applies to internal government documents as well, which can only have disastrous consequences for our understanding of political groups and events in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and South and South East Asia. “How can one possibly analyze the power and appeal of this ideology, the way that ideas set its strategy and tactics, why it is such a huge menace if any reference to the Islamic religion and its texts or doctrines isn’t permitted?”
Perhaps it was only in 1946, when George Kennan’s wrote his classified ‘Long Telegram’ that America began to understand the nature of the Soviet Union, why it acted the way it did, how the Kremlin thought, and why the USSR was a grave threat to America. In other words it took three decades to understand the mind of the enemy.
To complicate matters further, today there are two enemies: first, non-European, religiously informed non-state terrorist groups, like ISIS. Second, and equally dangerous, states that, in fact, fund and support them. There is evidence that, as the The Atlantic reported in June, 2014, “Two of the most successful factions fighting Assad’s forces are Islamist extremist groups: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). And their success is in part due to the support they have received from two Persian Gulf countries: Qatar and Saudi Arabia.”
Our ability to fight al Qaeda and similar transnational terrorist actors will depend upon our capacity to communicate to our own citizens and to the world what it is we are fighting for and what it is that the ideology of Jihad threatens in terms of the values we hold so dear.
To quote Sun Tsu , in war it is not enough to know the enemy in order to win. One must first know oneself. However, with the end of the Cold War America and the West understandably lost clarity with regard to what it was about its way of life that was precious and worth fighting for.
James Burnham explains with exemplary clarity the reasons for this loss of self-confidence, and what he wrote is still, mutatis mutandis, relevant,
“Judging a group of human beings- a race, nation, class or party- that he considers to possess less than their due of well-being and liberty, the liberal is hard put to it to condemn that group morally for acts that he would not hesitate to condemn in his fellows.
“When the Western liberal’s feeling of guilt and his associated feeling of moral vulnerability before the sorrows and demands of the wretched become obsessive, he often develops a generalized hatred of Western civilization and of his own country as a part of the West. We can frequently sense this hatred in …[journals like] The Nation.”
In order to succeed we need urgently recover our civilizational self-confidence.
Ronald Reagan was able to succeed because he was supremely confident of the moral and spiritual superiority of his cause. He was thus able to state with certainty and without hesitation that the SovietEmpire was evil. He was not afraid to confront reality. He was able to defend our values because he believed in them totally. He told an audience at Moscow State University, “Go into any schoolroom [in America], and there you will see children being taught the Declaration of Independence, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights-among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness-that no government can justly deny….”
John Lenczowski describes what Reagan advocated unapologetically, “Altogether, the various ideas of freedom, democracy, human rights, moral order, and the dignity of the human person were promoted not only by the President’s rhetoric and personal moral witness but by the Administration as a whole in numerous forms: in Voice of America editorials, Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty broadcasts, in articles in United States Information Agency-published magazines targeted at Soviet-bloc populations, on the USIA-run billboard on the sidewalk outside the U.S. embassy in Moscow, in American diplomats’ addresses at various international fora, in the distribution of books to Soviet bloc audiences and U.S.libraries abroad, in films distributed abroad, and so on.”
To quote Asian columnist, Banyan, in the Economist,“For all its flaws and mis-steps, [America] represents not just economic and military might, but an ideal to aspire to, in a way that China does not. And when American leaders appear to give less weight to that ideal, they not only diminish America’s attractions, they also lend more credence to the idea of its relative economic and military decline.”
The rest of the world recognizes the virtues of the West. As Arthur Schlesinger remarked, “when Chinese students cried and died for democracy in Tiananmen Square, they brought with them not representations of Confucius or Buddha but a model of the Statue of Liberty.”