A few years ago, I heard someone call into a right-wing radio show to rail against the feminists, the homosexuals, the atheists, and other usual suspects. The host enthusiastically agreed. The caller then voiced the hope that the host would join him in supporting the establishment of Islamic law in America, a twist that left the host sputtering incoherently.
These days, the idea of conservative Christians aligning themselves with radical Muslims is not a prank caller's gag but the subject of heated debate on the right. Dinesh D'Souza sparked the argument with his controversial book The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11 (Random House).
D'Souza's thesis is that America's cultural left brought 9/11 upon us—not, as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell infamously suggested shortly after the event, by inviting the wrath of God, but by inviting the wrath of Muslims. How? Mainly by fostering "a decadent American culture that angers and repulses traditional societies" and by "waging an aggressive global campaign to undermine the traditional patriarchal family and to promote secular values."
That's quite a change from the normal right-wing position in the West. In a column for the British Spectator shortly after 9/11, the conservative journalist and parliamentarian Boris Johnson also identified the liberation of women in the West as a principal cause of the anger of militant Islamists, but he came to a radically different conclusion than D'Souza did: "It is time for concerted cultural imperialism. They are wrong about women. We are right." At the time, Johnson seemed to speak for the most of the right.
Does The Enemy at Home represent a shift in attitude? Andrew Sullivan has been charging for some time that American "theoconservatives" have become a politicized "Christianist" movement with many similarities to Islamism (minus the suicide bombings). He sees D'Souza's book as a sign of an Islamist/Christianist merger. But to advance his thesis, Sullivan considerably exaggerates the welcome that D'Souza has received from conservatives.
So in January, when the Republican blogger Hugh Hewitt announced D'Souza's new book, Sullivan took note on his own blog with the short comment: "Together at last—as the Christianist-Islamist alliance deepens on the far right." Yet more recently, Hewitt's co-blogger Dean Barnett slammed The Enemy at Home as "intellectually obtuse, poorly informed and, most importantly, an irresponsible exercise in putatively conservative bomb-throwing."
With a few exceptions, such as Kathryn Jean Lopez at National Review, prominent conservatives have excoriated D'Souza's tome. Writing about D'Souza in The New Republic, Sullivan mentions "the occasional sharp attack from the libertarian right"; he does not recognize the sharp attacks that have come from such decidedly non-libertarian rightists as the Hoover Institution's Victor Davis Hanson, New Criterion editor Roger Kimball, Powerline blogger Scott Johnson, and National Review's Stanley Kurtz. D'Souza has not quite become a pariah on the right, but the majority of conservatives have strongly rejected his thesis as a right-wing variation on what they call the left's "blame America first" mentality.
That said, some American social conservatives have long expressed guarded sympathy with the radical Muslim critique of Western "decadence." Shortly after 9/11, marriage booster Maggie Gallagher wrote a column arguing that the honest answer to "Why do they hate us?" is "our sexual culture, which even to many Americans looks not only deeply destructive, but ugly." (She went on to add that while both women and children in traditional Islamic culture suffer severe oppression, "the family system itself works.")
In Christianity Today, managing editor Mark Galli urged a strong stand against terrorism but also sounded a startlingly sympathetic note toward the Islamic militants' anger at the "hedonism," "materialism," and "secularism" the West was exporting into their cultures. In October 2004, in the same magazine, Watergate felon turned evangelical minister Chuck Colson warned that the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States would help radical Islamic terrorists by making "our kind of freedom abhorrent" to Muslims.
Meanwhile, in May of that year, former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan asserted in his syndicated column that on such issues as homosexuality, "conservative Americans have more in common with devout Muslims than with liberal Democrats."
Chiding Bush for urging Muslims to embrace a version of liberty that includes the "freedom of Larry Flynt to produce pornography and of Salman Rushdie to publish The Satanic Verses," Buchanan wrote, "If conservatives reject the 'equality' preached by Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, NARAL and the National Organization for Women, why seek to impose it on the Islamic world? Why not stand beside Islam, and against Hollywood and Hillary?"
In effect, D'Souza, Colson, Buchanan and company agree with the familiar sentiment that the terrorists "hate us for our freedoms." Their conclusion, however, is that those freedoms should be curbed—though they would say that they are talking not about freedom itself but its excesses. According to D'Souza, those excesses include the notion that "men and women should have the same roles in society" or that "freedom of expression includes the right to publish material that is sexually explicit or blasphemous."
Yet there is no reason to believe that Islamic radicals or even most Muslim traditionalists oppose merely the "excesses" of, say, women's liberation rather than the basic notion of female equality. The Enemy at Home includes a sympathetic discussion of Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb's critique of America's moral decadence, but D'Souza neglects to mention that this critique was based on Qutb's stay in the United States in the notoriously licentious period of 1948 to 1950.
Radical Islamists' ire is directed not just at The Vagina Monologues but at beauty pageants, and they have often responded violently even to moderate steps toward the emancipation of women. Nor does D'Souza say much about the hostility not only toward secularism but toward other religions that is prevalent in the Muslim world today.
The Enemy at Home targets not just the cultural left but the anti-Muslim right—conservatives such as Robert Spencer, author of Islam Unveiled, who argue that Islam itself is inherently violent, oppressive, and prone to breeding terrorists. "There is probably no better way to repel traditional Muslims, and push them into the radical camp, than to attack their religion and their prophet," writes D'Souza, and on this point he is on to something—not just with regard to "traditionalist Muslims" but to moderate Muslims as well. Spencer's critique of D'Souza in the neoconservative webzine FrontPage illustrates the problem with anti-Islamic polemics: Spencer cites the atrocities perpetuated by medieval Muslim armies in Jerusalem, Constantinople, and other conquered cities as evidence that barbaric "jihadism" is endemic to Islam, without acknowledging that the Christian crusaders' actions were at least as bad.
Yet D'Souza's critique of Spencer falls flat because he shares some of the same basic assumptions—for instance, that Islam is inherently incompatible with secularism and is inherently "fundamentalist" in the sense of relying on a literal reading of the Koran. It's just that, for D'Souza, these are not vices but virtues. The anti-Muslims regard secularized but Islamic Turkey as an anomaly; so does D'Souza, who writes mostly with approval of the push to reverse Turkey's secularization: "Muslims have the right to live in Islamic states under Muslim law if they wish."
It is quite true that, in the age of militant Islamic terrorism, it is not very helpful to tell millions of peaceful Muslims that their religion is inherently violent, evil, and oppressive. It is equally unhelpful of D'Souza to deny the obvious: The best hope for peaceful coexistence is for the Islamic world to embrace modernization and individual liberty, not for the West to turn its back on those values.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason.
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