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War by Faith Alone

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Tags War and Foreign PolicyInterventionism

04/02/2008David Gordon

[Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action. By George Weigel. Doubleday, 2007. 195 pages.]


The key to George Weigel's thought lies in his earlier massive volume Tranquillitas Ordinis (Oxford University Press, 1987). St. Augustine beautifully defined peace as the tranquility of order. Weigel twists Augustine's dictum for his own bellicose purposes. In standard just war theory, the conditions a legitimate war are required to meet are so demanding that, as the eminent theologian Charles Cardinal Journet contended,

After reading this specification [by St. Thomas Aquinas of the criteria] for a just war we might well ask how many wars have been wholly just. Probably they could be counted on the fingers of one hand. (Journet, The Church of the Word Incarnate, Volume 1, Sheed and Ward, 1955, pp. 306–307)

Weigel endeavors to escape from these limits. Anything less than a stable, ordered world does not meet Augustine's definition of peace. But should not our goal be to promote this sort of peace, rather than be satisfied with peace as the mere absence of war? If so, we may aim actively to secure an ordered world. Needless to say, Augustine did not take his remark to have these implications. Quite the contrary, he helped initiate the tradition of strict limits on war to which Cardinal Journet refers. Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism may be regarded as an application of Weigel's "tranquillitas ordinis fallacy" to current American foreign policy. 1

The book consists of three parts: the initial part concentrates on Islamic theology and the other two on foreign policy issues. I propose to concentrate on the latter two parts, since theology far exceeds my competence. The sum and substance of the first part is that the notion of three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, should be rejected. Islam diverges sharply from the other two faiths. The issue, further, cannot be confined to mere theological argument. Many Muslims wish to wage holy war against the West in order to bring about the triumph of their faith. In doing so, some countenance tactics of terror, as we learned to our horror on 9/11. Some Muslims seem amenable to compromise, but the danger from Islam must not be underestimated; and tough tactics are the order of the day. An "Open Letter to Pope Benedict XVI" signed by thirty-eight Islamic leaders is encouraging.

Yet it is not without interest that this statement — which despite its shortcomings was still the most forthcoming from senior Muslim leaders in living memory — followed a robust critique [by the Pope] of the theological roots of jihadism, not the exchange of banalities and pleasantries that too often characterizes interreligious dialogue. Surely there are lessons here for the future. (p. 61)

I do not wish to argue for a different view of Islam from that which Weigel adopts: his foreign policy conclusions do not follow even if one sees Islam as he does. But his efforts to drive a wedge between Islam and the other two "Abrahamic" religions are sometimes forced. He rightly notes that Muslims believe that their faith has superseded Judaism and Christianity.

In a Christian understanding of salvation history, Abraham is not only the great ancestor; he also points to the fulfillment of God's saving purposes, which will emerge from Abraham's stock, the people of Israel — a fulfillment Christians believe God accomplished in Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Abraham and Son of David … Despite the supersessionist claims that some Christians have made throughout history vis-à-vis Judaism, no orthodox Christian holds that God's self-revelation in Christ negates God's self-revelation in the history of the People of Israel. Islam, by contrast, takes a radically supersessionist view of both Judaism and Christianity, claiming that the final revelation to Muhammad trumps, by way of supersession, any revelatory value (so to speak) that might be found in the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament. (pp. 20–21)

Weigel races past the common, but not universal, Christian view that Israel has ceased to be God's chosen people. He does not mention at all that neither Christians nor Jews regard Muhammad as a prophet. By contrast, Muslims believe that both Abraham and Jesus were prophets. Weigel glides over this by mentioning only the correct claim that Muslims do not accept the texts of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament; as he himself later points out (p. 166, note 6), they think that these texts have been corrupted. For that matter, Jews do not grant any religious authority to the New Testament. In what way has Weigel shown that Judaism and Christianity are closer to each other than either to Islam?

Again, Weigel says:

Islam's radical stress on the unicity (oneness) of God, which Islam sharply distinguishes from the Christian Trinitarian concept of God, may also help explain the differing success each religion has had in creating societies characterized by a healthy, vibrant pluralism. (p. 169, note 21)

Weigel omits to mention that Judaism also insists on God's absolute unity. Indeed, Maimonides largely for that reason thought Islam closer to the truth than Christianity.

Weigel contrasts Christians, who believe that Holy Scripture can be interpreted, with Muslims:

The Qur'an … is understood by Muslims to be dictated, word for word and syllable for syllable, so that there is no question of "exegesis," as Christians and Jews would use the term; nor is there any possibility of a postscriptural development of doctrine. The priority in Islam is on jurisprudence, the debate of experts in Islamic law on the applicability of texts to circumstances… (p. 16)

But infalliblist views of the Bible are not absent from the history of Christianity; and Weigel omits to note that the priority of jurisprudence is a feature of Judaism as well. He also does not mention, lest this disturb his emphasis on Islamic rigidity, that Islam has competing schools of jurisprudence.

Enough of theology. Given his bleak account of Islam, what does Weigel propose to do about the contemporary Islamic world? His main proposal is to demand "regime change" in Iran. Its president is a jihadist fanatic of the worst sort, who ardently seeks nuclear weapons so that he can immolate Israel and, in doing so, hasten the end of the world. He must be stopped before it is too late.

It's worth pausing briefly to consider the case of [Iranian] President Ahmadinejad, who embodies a distinctively Shiite form of jihadism … Shiite jihadists, like Ahmadinejad, have a somewhat different strategic goal [from Sunni jihadists]: to hasten the return of a messianic figure, the Twelfth Imam … he and those of his cast of mind believe themselves obligated to do whatever they can to hasten the arrival of the messianic age — including incinerating Israel, even if that results in the destruction (or, as they would say, 'martyrdom') of their own country. (pp. 98–99)

Faced with such a dire prospect, should not even committed supporters of a noninterventionist foreign policy rethink our position? Before doing so, though, some questions arise. First, what is the evidence that Ahmadinejad does aim at the nuclear destruction of Israel and, with it, of his own country? Weigel cites in support only an article by the Israeli historian Benny Morris, "This Holocaust Will Be Different," Jerusalem Post, January 18, 2007 (pp. 182–83, note 5). This article, however, merely conjures up an apocalyptic picture and offers no evidence that Ahmadinejad has such plans. 2

Weigel, though, does have one further "argument." As is customary in such matters, he evokes the memory of Hitler:

Those who opted for appeasement and deterrence in the mid-1930s could not say that Adolf Hitler hadn't warned them: statesmen could find, buried in the turgid prose of Mein Kampf, Hitler's entire program … In 1933, it was a serious mistake to dismiss Mein Kampf as the ravings of a lunatic. It would be a grave mistake today to think that the mullahs of Iran are simply raving… (pp. 97–98)

Would it not make more sense to endeavor to determine the exact goals of Iran's current policy rather than rely on an analogy from European events of seventy years ago? If one does so, several facts that Weigel does not discuss spring to mind. For one thing, Ahmadinejad does not hold supreme power in Iran; and, in any case, his often-bizarre rhetoric is difficult to interpret. Further, as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, Iran was a few years ago well disposed to the United States. Iran was glad that the United States had overthrown the Taliban and Saddam Hussein and seemed prepared to negotiate; but America spurned the opportunity. 3Further, current American intelligence estimates do not support Weigel's charge that Iran aims to build nuclear weapons.

Perhaps, though, Weigel has a rejoinder. Even if there is only a chance that Ahmadinejad intends to bring about the end of the world, should we not act to interdict him? Even a small chance of a great evil demands action. This rejoinder fails: to reason in this way ignores the costs and risks of the policy that Weigel proposes.

What exactly is this policy? He appears to think that Iran can be prevented from developing nuclear weapons without a direct strike. But we must not enter into negotiations with the Iranian government. Oh, no, that would never do: that would be to accord "legitimacy" to the regime. Instead, we must endeavor to isolate the Iranian government and try to secure "regime change." If this does not suffice, military action may be necessary; does not that eminent literary critic Norman Podhoretz, add the weight of his authority in foreign affairs for this option? "In any event," Weigel assures us, "it will be a coalition of the willing, not the United Nations, that will affect [sic] the needed changes in Iran — one way or another" (p. 184, note 9).

What would happen if we take Weigel's advice? Would this not inflame Iranian jihadists to violent action against us? It never seems to occur to Weigel that the jihadists are influenced by American policy. No doubt they seek the universal triumph of their religion; but, as Michael Scheuer in his Imperial Hubris, and Robert Pape, in Dying to Win, have pointed out, Islamic terrorists react to concrete grievances, most notably American involvement in the Middle East. Both of these authors have devoted years of study to the problem; Weigel prefers to rely on an expert on the novels of Norman Mailer

Weigel fails to see the point that Scheuer and Pape make because he is in the grip of theological determinism. He rightly says that how "men and women think about God — or don't think about God — has a great deal to do with how they envision the just society, and how they determine the appropriate means by which to build that society" (p. 13). It does not follow from this undoubted fact, though, that religious belief, to the exclusion of all else, directly causes political action. Surely jihadist views do not develop in a political vacuum.

Weigel is himself constrained to admit that in Iraq, American intervention has increased terrorism. "American analysts and U.S. policy makers miscalculated the degree to which post-Saddam Iraq would quickly become a battlefield in the wider war against jihadism" (p. 82). Do we not have here a perfect illustration of how American intervention causes the problem its advocates profess to cure? Naturally, Weigel does not see matters this way. For him, the increase in terrorism shows only that the American invasion should have been planned better. Of course, we cannot leave Iraq now, he says: terrorists would regard American withdrawal as a great victory and would intensify their actions against us. One wonders how he knows this. Weigel professes belief in a "tranquillitas ordinis," but what he in fact favors is religious war. He would do better to adhere to the just war tradition he has endeavored to replace.

  • 1. I hasten to add that I do not object to the Augustinian definition of peace, but rather to Weigel's misapplication of it to evade the just war standards.
  • 2. The article is available online, and readers may judge for themselves.
  • 3. See Glenn Greenwald, A Tragic Legacy (Crown, 2007) and my review in The Mises Review Fall 2007.
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