freedom first, then virtue by dinesh d'souza

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    Jul. 13, 2003
    Freedom first, then virtue
    by Dinesh D'Souza

    Behind the physical attacks on the West and its allies is an intellectual attack an assault not just on what America does but also on what America is. So far the Bush administration's military response in Afghanistan, in Iraq and elsewhere has been reasonably effective against al-Qaida and its sponsors. But our intellectual response has been weak.

    This matters, because ultimately it is not enough to shut down the terrorist camps. We must also stop the "jihad factories," the mosques and educational institutions that are turning out tens of thousands of aspiring suicide bombers.
    We cannot kill all these people; we have to change their minds. Yet America is making few converts in the Muslim world.

    The problem is that we have not effectively answered the strongest version of the Islamic critique of the US. Usually Americans seek to defend their society by appealing to its shared principles. Thus they say that America is a free society, or a prosperous society, or a diverse and pluralistic culture, or a nation that gives women the same rights as men. The most intelligent Islamic critics acknowledge all this, but they dismiss it as worthless triviality.

    One of the leading theoreticians of Islamic fundamentalism is the Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb. Called "the brains behind bin Laden," Qutb argues that the West is a society based on freedom while the Islamic world is based on virtue. In his books Qutb says: Look at how badly freedom is used in the West. Look at the pervasive materialism, triviality, vulgarity and sexual promiscuity. Islamic societies may be poor, Qutb says, but we are trying to implement the will of God. Qutb argues that Islamic laws are based on divine law, and God's law is necessarily higher than any human law. Virtue, Qutb insists, is a higher principle than freedom.

    The Islamic critique as exemplified by Qutb is similar to the critique that the classical philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, made of freedom. The classical thinkers would have agreed with him that virtue, not freedom, is the ultimate goal of a good society. And in saying this they would be quite right.

    HOW, THEN, can the Islamic argument against America be answered on its own terms?
    Let us concede at the outset that in a free society freedom will often be used badly. The Islamic critics have a point when they deplore our high crime and illegitimacy rates and the triviality and vulgarity of our popular culture. Freedom, by definition, includes freedom to do good or evil, to act nobly or basely. Thus we should not be surprised that there is a considerable amount of vice, license and vulgarity in a free society. Given the warped timber of humanity, freedom becomes a forum for the expression of human flaws and weaknesses.

    But if freedom brings out the worst in people, it also brings out the best. The millions of Americans who live decent, praiseworthy lives deserve our highest admiration because they have opted for the good when good is not the only available option. Even amid the temptations that a rich and free society offers they have remained on the straight path. Their virtue has special luster because it is freely chosen.

    The free society does not guarantee virtue, any more than it guarantees happiness. But it allows for the pursuit of both, a pursuit rendered all the more meaningful and profound because success is not guaranteed but has to be won through personal striving.

    By contrast, the authoritarian society that Islamic fundamentalists advocate undermines the possibility of virtue. If the supply of virtue is insufficient in free societies, it is almost nonexistent in Islamic societies because coerced virtues are not virtues at all.

    Consider the woman who is required to wear a veil. There is no modesty in this because the woman is being compelled. Compulsion cannot produce virtue; it can only produce the outward semblance of virtue.

    Indeed, once the reins of coercion are released, as they were for the September 11 terrorists who lived in the US, the worst impulses of human nature break loose. Sure enough, the deeply religious terrorists spent their last days in gambling dens, bars and strip clubs, sampling the licentious lifestyle they were about to strike out against. In this respect they were like the Spartans, who Plutarch tells us were abstemious in public but privately coveted wealth and luxury. In theocratic societies such as Iran, the absence of freedom signals the absence of virtue.

    This is the argument that Americans should make to people in the Islamic world. It is a mistake to presume that Muslims would be unreceptive to it. Islam, which has common roots with Judaism and Christianity, respects the autonomy of the individual soul. Salvation for Muslims, no less than for Jews and Christians, is based on the soul's choosing freely to follow God.
    We can make the case to Muslims that freedom is not a secular invention; rather, freedom is a gift from God. And because freedom is the necessary precondition for virtue, we can feel confident in asserting that our free society is not simply richer, more varied and more tolerant, it is also morally superior to the fundamentalists' version of Islamic society.

    The writer is the Robert and Karen Rishwain Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the author of What's So Great About America. The essay was originally written for The Washington Post.
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