On Our Own Doorstep

As we approach the fourth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the obvious question is: What, if anything, have we learned since then? We have learned a great deal about the threat posed by radical Islam, but not enough about what gives it its vitality. Before September 11, 2001 , most Americans had never heard of Osama bin Laden or al Qaeda. While they may have known about the existence of Islamic terrorism, they thought that it was something that happened “over there,” not here at home. Well, that has changed. Americans not only understand that bin Laden and others mean to do us great harm, but most of us—save a few political figures—also recognize that our war on terrorism is part of a larger, global struggle. And understanding the threat posed by extremist Islam requires us to understand how Islam as a whole differs from our worldviews. While the vast majority of Muslims mean us no harm, there is something about Islam that lends itself to the extremist worldview that produced September 11. As Pope Benedict put it, back when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, “The interplay of society, politics, and religion has a completely different structure in Islam” than in the Christian West. The Koran “insists that the whole order of life be Islamic.” These differences make attempts at compromise or appeasement, at best, unproductive and, at worst, folly. The vision that fuels Islamist activity derives energy from a seemingly unlikely source: the West’s own spiritual poverty. Ratzinger, who has been involved in interfaith dialogue with Islamic leaders, sees a connection between “the great moral crisis of the Western world” and the “reawakening” of the “Islamic soul.” The West’s “moral contradiction” left it incapable of “preaching a message of morality.” All it had to offer the rest of the world was “know how” and a “few remains of some modern ideas of enlightenment.” By contrast, Muslims could say, “We know who we are,” and as they look at the increasingly secular West, they could say that their “religion stands the test.” The West’s moral and spiritual exhaustion, coupled with Muslim economic power that came with petro-dollars, made dreams of an Islamic revival possible. We saw this process in action this summer in London. The home-grown terrorists didn’t turn to radical Islam because they were poor or oppressed—they weren’t. They were motivated by a religious and moral vision they couldn’t get anywhere else—at least not from the scraps of Enlightenment-based thinking that pass for culture in much of the West. Remember, too, that Sayyid Qutab, the Egyptian radical whose writings so influence Osama bin Laden, blamed the West’s decline on the lack of Christian influence in society. Islam, he said, would have to take over where Christianity failed. Well, protecting ourselves from any threat must begin with an appreciation of our vulnerabilities, especially when our adversaries point out for us our own weaknesses. No amount of economic prosperity and military “know how” can compensate for the lack of moral vision and purpose so needed today. And that, my friends, puts the challenge right on our doorstep.


Chuck Colson


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