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Radical Muslims challenge the thinking we thought was universal

Reader comment on item: [Finding Moderate Muslims:] Do you believe in modernity?

Submitted by Jonathan Pfeffer, Dec 7, 2003 at 01:34

Dr Pipes,

By your test of who is a moderate Muslim, I think that I would assess even the most moderate amongst them with a C- grade. The problem I think, lies in the fact that we make the mistake of assuming western thought is the natural evolution of thinking by intelligent people. We may tend to call it universal modern thinking, but is it universal? Maybe our way of thinking is simply a particular brand of thinking, developed originally in Europe, adopted and admired by the non-Muslim Asians.

There are several key aspects to western thinking, but two stand out and are what the Muslim world seems to challenge. According to western thinking;

1.Masses of people are essentially pure and innocent. Leaders can be corrupt and bad, but ordinary people are not. When masses revolt, their cause is automatically just, because masses would only revolt because of an inherent injustice that they experience and
perhaps we naïve observers have overlooked.

2.Force and even targeted attacks can only be directed at combatants or agents of bad people. The targeting of innocent people is wrong in every case.

3.Conquest for the sake of conquest is wrong. You may conquer to eliminate another evil or as part of a plan to ostensibly improve a country or expand an ideology.

I think that maybe what made us believe that western thinking was a universal modern way to think was the fact that all of our recent conflicts, both cold and hot, before this latest spat with radical Islam was fought against people who themselves emulated western thought. As strange as Moa often seemed to us, he and his party paid a lot of attention to sounding modern and sophisticated to us.

The main conflict of the twentieth century was between socialism and bourgeois liberalism. Both of these ideologies aspired to certain universal values that formed western thinking. Both accept the three main tenets that I listed above. Sure the Chinese seemed at little strange. They have this strong oriental propensity to publicly cry for the suffering of others, or to talk about "rehabilitating" people for the "mistakes" they have made. but theirs is an elegant and reasonable logic. We can easily pass these differences off as purely cultural in nature.

The east and west still talked to each other using modern thinking and shared common principles. The Soviets had some quirks of their own, but their foreign ministry propagandists knew what to say and how to spin a story in a politically correct fashion. Despite any underhanded treachery of the KGB, official Soviet press releases painted the Soviet Union as a pristine beautiful place where everybody respected each other. The UN certainly took on the language of western diplomacy, African ambassadors learned how to talk like western diplomats.

All in all we were lulled into believing that there was a universal way a modern person thought and acted at least when such a person was a leader or respected intellectual. Since I was born, well after the Nazis had long disappeared, I somehow was taught to divide the world's time line between the old past where horrible people did and said horrible things, and the present modern world where people talk and act "modern" and "reasonably".

This is why the recent discovery of the Muslim world has been such a shock to most Americans. We find ourselves listening to people who believe that killing the innocent is righteous, that Christian crusaders are invading the Muslim world. That Jews are plotting the takeover of Iraq. It is an unbelievable way to think in a world that we thought had gotten past these things. Muslims talk openly about killing Americans wherever they may be, because the US supports Israel.

What is most worrisome about this newly discovered way of thinking is that many of our own people, particularly on the left have become admirers of Islam. In fact Muslims have dealt with problems this way for centuries, we simply never bothered to look too closely. We just passed them off as ignorant third world types who only await the modern world to transform their society.

Perhaps there is more to it than that. Maybe we are just discovering that western thinking simply was so dominant up to the 1990s that we failed to appreciate its value and its significance. We forgot that we share the world with other people who still have many characteristics of the bad old world that is reminiscent of Europe in earlier centuries before the enlightenment.
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