Were I a younger man, I would no doubt feel the sort of rage that is appropriate to youth. To be sure, I would also offer prayers for the victims, their families and the future. But the human animal is not long sustained by prayer and sympathy – least of all young men who dream of glory and revenge. A few short months ago, it would have been unthinkable to speak of glory and revenge, and perhaps in the distant future, we will, again, think such ideas are archaic. But I think we will be hearing much more about them in the months and years ahead. The liberal peace of which we have dreamed has been deferred. The End of History, it seems, has been postponed.
In my youth – when I was too young, in fact, to know anything of glory and vengeance – I lived in countries that most of my dearest friends here in the States did not know even existed more than a decade ago: Kuwait and Yemen. It is always difficult to reconstruct the memories of one’s youth, since fact and fiction intermingle, and the angle of events is always acute. My father had emerged from World War II, like so many others, with a grand optimism that the world could be made a far better place than the one he had witnessed. A Ph.D. from Princeton and a dozen years later, he found himself a representative of the United States, in a region of the world he knew through long nights of study and by the fortune of family lineage, the latter serving him as a sort of intuitive compass during his years at Princeton and beyond.
In Yemen, we were the first family to represent the United States, a fact that so irritated the Soviets that they suggested to the government officials there that we might by members of the intelligence community. Some six months into our stay, we were given 24 hours to burn our documents and leave the country. I departed with dim but durable memories of lazy, bumpy treks along steep mountain paths, securely snuggled next to my 4-year-old twin sister in a saddle on the back of a donkey, escorted only by kind but impoverished guides, in whom my parents had unwavering trust. It was the age of martinis and Kent cigarettes, when United States citizenship brought honor in a world still digging out from the destruction of a world war – and more than a little envy too.
The Kuwait of my youth was not without a measure of quiet stability. Our life was sheltered by compound walls, beyond which was a vast ocean of sand into which new roads to the embassy had to be cut each time we ventured out. Beyond this shimmering granular ocean lay the Red Sea, where we would spend hour after spectacular hour body surfing on waves that broke gently on beaches that seemed to stretch without interruption to the even more mysterious lands without names to the south. Twenty years ago, I returned in search of a past I thought could be retrieved, or at least confirmed, only to discover that my beaches were now occupied by 40-story skyscrapers. I have not gone back again.
Subsequent to our 2-year stay in Kuwait, my father took a position as a professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. The year 1963 was a momentous one in the United States, confusing to those firmly interwoven into its social fabric, bewildering to a little boy of 8 who still dreamed in Arabic, and who had no firm recollection of a country that was his own by law, but foreign by any other measure. My father’s book on Muslim Fundamentalism, “The Society of the Muslim Brothers,” so long in coming, was published in 1967, in no small part because his doctoral advisers – and, at times, even he – did not believe that fundamentalism of any persuasion could withstand the overriding power and logic of modernization. That was, of course, the same year of yet another great Arab-Israeli war.
While I dimly recall my father talking about any number of public debates in which he participated at that time (and also during the 1973 war), my only tangible recollections are of packed meetings at Hillel House, the local Jewish Community Center, where whatever convergence of the minds that had occurred between the two sides was always brought to an abrupt halt by the testimony of a teary-eyed survivor of the Holocaust. There is, properly speaking, no possible response to such testimony, since its warrant to authority was the horror of the event itself. My father knew this, but sought, without success, to find a balance between the two sides.
I have indicated that I am a former Arabist. This is true, though not in the strictest vocational sense. That was my father’s labor – I absorbed his sentiments and sympathies more by osmosis than by study. His numerous travels, the innumerable guests, the late-night meetings and parties with bright-eyed graduate students at our home near campus – through these I received my instruction. His views were less opposed to Israel, than in favor of a kind of civilized respect, which he thought would have to be the precondition for any stable resolution of a problem that seemed longstanding, even after the 1973 war. I concurred then, as I do now.
The anniversary of my father’s death, nearly two decades distant, occurred the day before the worst attack on the United States in its nearly 400-year history, from colonial times to the present day. I could not help but wonder, on that horrible day, what he would have said were he still alive. (The labors of his life were brought home in an even more poignant way when the videotape released by Osama bin Laden after the attack revealed an elder associate seated to his left who had himself been a member of the Egyptian fundamentalist group my father had studied so long ago, and perhaps even interviewed.) Sons do not always follow their fathers, however, and so speaking on their behalf is often a hazard. Yet like him, I am a professor, and in a field not wholly unrelated to his: the history of political thought, as it has developed in the West. I retain my deep affection for the peoples of the Arab world, but it is trumped, decisively, by what I have gleaned in my own long labors as a scholar of the political achievements of the Anglo-American world. It is in that capacity that I offer my thoughts here, though with a debt to all that I learned in another lifetime so long ago in the Middle East.
There has been talk recently that a war has been waged not on the United States alone, but on civilization itself. This is, I think, only partly correct. To cast the matter in this way invites us to speak in terms of a “clash of civilizations,” which is a horribly dangerous way to couch the problem. The direct issue before us is not the fate of civilization, but rather the fate of nation-states. More specifically, the question is whether nation-states are to be the political units by which civilization will be carried forward in this century. The great accomplishment of the West in the past half-millennium is the development of the nation-state. For all of its problems, which are legion, the nation-state remains our best guarantee against the alternatives of individual anarchy, tribalism or a global universalism without content – all of which are being entertained today, in one form or another.
In the Middle East, the nation-state does not have a long historical pedigree, and for that reason is a fragile affair, susceptible to greater instabilities than we in the Anglo-American world imagine. We now stand, however, on an historical precipice: For civilization to survive, the nation-state cannot be allowed to be threatened by men who are given cover by other nation-states, in the Middle East or elsewhere, who want it both ways.
A nation-state is a responsible world actor, whose rights of sovereignty are coterminous with their obligation to play by the rules that emerge in times of relative peace. To consent, even tacitly, to harboring men whose intention it is to destroy other nation-states is to renounce, entirely, the right to sovereign integrity – it is to declare war, without firing a shot, on the very idea of the nation-state as the carrier of civilization; it is to announce to the agents of commerce around the globe that there shall be no security of contracts, no rule of law, no rights of property; it is to declare, to citizens within its borders and without, that trust means nothing, and that power here will be arbitrary.
Our new century will, I fear, be a sober test of our willingness to defend the nation-state – not, I hope, in the name of “nationalism,” but rather because the alternatives are far worse. Let us not speak about defending civilization, for that will surely lead to an escalation of conflict beyond its true bounds. Nation-states within all the distinct world civilizations are threatened by what recently happened in New York, Washington and in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania. Yet it is also undeniably the case that all of the nations of the Middle East, whatever their disposition toward, or complicity in, the recent acts of war, will now be tested. And it will not be on the basis of the beauty of their culture, the dignity of their history or their manner of bearing suffering with equanimity that they will be evaluated by the world community, but rather by whether they are able to achieve, perhaps before the long period of gestation that would otherwise be necessary, the substance and form of a nation-state that will be required for civilization to endure.
For the nation-state to take hold in the Muslim world, however, it will be necessary to go far beyond institution building and international philanthropy. Evidence suggests, for example, that those involved in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 had their “fathers” in mind. I use this term loosely, of course, but it is not off the mark to see in the actions of the terrorists a rebellion against those who have maintained their hold on power in the Middle East by a two-fold strategy that, on the one hand, caters to Western powers in the international community while, on the other hand, condemns the West in internal politics as a way of placating – but not including – “militant Islam” at home. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are perhaps the best examples.
While Islam may well be a religion of peace, the sad fact remains that no nation-state has been able to simultaneously retain its fidelity to Islam and become a peaceful member of the community of nations. We may squabble about exceptions (Turkey comes to mind), but the fact that they are exceptions is reason enough to pause. Not by accident, then, did these “sons” set about their business in a place – Afghanistan – that in effect, had no “fathers,” no state rulers who, like their own “fathers” back home, had adopted the corrupt strategy I have just mentioned. They want nothing of the trappings of the “fathers.” They want nothing of the nation-state. They want a “nation of Islam” which transcends the national borders that are, to the terrorist “sons,” the only evidence they need of the hegemony of the West.
Is it an accident, moreover, that the terrorist “sons” had glory on their mind. Glory is a “manly” virtue, as Augustine pointed out a long time ago in “The City of God.” Whenever the “sons” get it into their mind that their “fathers” have betrayed them, it will not be long before they dream of glory. So powerful, in fact, is this lust for glory that monotheism, in each of its three branches, has declared that glory belongs to God, and does not fall within the jurisdiction of His creatures. In this regard, talk of the terrorists’ “courage” is quite misguided. Courage, Plato tells us in “The Republic,” requires wisdom, which involves knowing what is worth dying for, and why. Courage cannot, therefore, involve any psychological dynamic that touches upon the betrayal or perceived weakness of the “fathers.” Courage is deliberative, glory is genetic.
Beyond the betrayal of the fathers and the motivation of glory, there is yet another problem that is perhaps even more ominous than these: the relationship between science and religion. Islam, it will be rightly said, advanced the sciences while Europe had lapsed into barbarism. Must it not therefore be able to accommodate science? But this formulation misunderstands what is at issue. The question is not whether at any given period Islam and science were compatible, but rather what Islam’s response was when scientific advances no longer comported with the cosmology set forth in its holy teachings.
The West had such a crisis at the time of Galileo, and Christianity survived it. Islam did not emerge similarly undamaged. In “Democracy in America,” Tocqueville suggested that Christianity – unlike Islam – proffers only general specifications about the relations between the Divine and the human economy, but not a scientific cosmology against which the advances of science would clash. The First Article of the Nicene Creed – “I believe in God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth” – is mute with respect to the features of the cosmos, their respective relationship one to another, as well as the manner in which, together or in part, they can be known; and so can accommodate a vast array of scientific and technological advancements. To be sure, there is ongoing tension between Christianity and science, which Darwin’s work only heightened.
But whatever theoretical difficulties there are, it remains a bald fact to be reckoned with that the United States – the most religious nation in the world, with the possible exception of Iran – is also the most scientifically advanced. While one can imagine saying that about the Persia of a different age, no current day Islamic nation can make anything remotely resembling this claim. This is a longstanding problem, which is been brought into relief in the Muslim world in direct proportion to the scientific advances in the West. It predates the ascent of Israel, and directs our attention to a far deeper source of acrimony within the Muslim world than to the foreign policy of the United States toward Israel, which is so often invoked as the real source of the “grievances.” A Palestinian state is surely needed, but let us be good doctors and diagnose the disease at its root.
The achievement of stable nation-states in the Muslim world will require, above all, political representation of the sort that renders commerce not only possible, but also a desirable end of life. This need not be crass commercialism, of the sort that our pundits suggest is the only possible outcome of such a view. The great lesson of early modern Europe was that the real alternative to commerce was glory and warfare. For all of the limitations of commerce, the discovery of the West was that commerce saved us from glory, which was worse. The terrorist “sons,” I suggested a moment ago, have chosen glory to avenge the impotence of their “fathers.” The discovery of the West was that the “fathers” less needed to be avenged than be periodically replaced, through a system of political representation that ousted them if their hold on power betrayed their charge. And replaced they were, by “sons” who thought they could do better, and by “daughters” as well.
Commercial republics are the great achievement of the West today, the fruit of many centuries of trial and error, a great deal of rumination, and no small amount of spilt blood. At their best, they guard against inept or tyrannical “fathers,” redirect the passion of glory toward commerce, and rely on the advances of science to secure that ephemeral but worthy objective: well-being.
I do not put forth this solution without great hesitation, since I know that the formulation I have offered is a distinctly Western one, which emerged out of battles that were waged within Christianity itself. So understood, it is not at all clear that from within Islam similar conclusions can be reached about the importance of the nation-state. I do know for certain, however, that if the nation-state is to take hold in the Muslim world – without it being a cloak behind which the corruption of the “fathers” can be masked to both the international and domestic community – it is going to have to do so from within, so to speak. Prompted by recent events, Islam stands on the threshold of this event.
For our part, then, let us not allow the rage of youth to confuse and misdirect our attention from the very real and credible threat we now face. The issue is whether the Muslim world, on foundations of its own, has the wherewithal to participate in the community of nations. The alternatives are either that it will encounter the world as a supposedly universal “Nation of Islam” or as particular tribes of ethnic communities, which talk the language of universalism without being able to coordinate the sort of society that makes even a modicum of well-being possible. The 21st century will either witness the global advent of the nation-state or the destruction of us all.
Joshua Mitchell is associate professor of Government at Georgetown University, and is author, most recently, of “The Fragility of Freedom: Tocqueville on Religion, Democracy, and the American Future” (University of Chicago Press, 1995). His father, Richard Mitchell, was the author of “The Society of Muslim Brothers,” recently reissued by Oxford University Press.