Less than a week ago, Muslim terrorists attacked and killed more than a hundred people in Paris, leaving many more wounded and suffering. France, recently distinguishing herself as aloof from America’s “war on terror,” has now (in the words of President Francois Hollande) declared herself “at war” with ISIS. French jets have begun to bomb military targets in Syria to defend France and the west from radical Islam.
Indeed, not only the west but the world community has expressed deep sympathy for France, reminding one of the global expressions of solidarity with the United States in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The United States and France, along with the west as a whole, have much in common. We are hated by Muslim extremists.
Apart from the psychological fact that fanatics always need someone to hate, the following are three particularly apparent reasons:
- Economic Imperialism. The west enjoys an incomparably higher material standard of living than the Middle East, and this has created deep resentment among the impoverished there. The fact that the west has exerted its influence on Middle Eastern governments during the twentieth century for its own advantage–mostly in the form of cheap oil–makes this economic resentment all the more tangible.
- Cultural Decadence. The west has pioneered a moral culture that scandalizes devout Muslims. Marriage is dissolving. Sexual promiscuity is rampant. Homosexual relationships are becoming legitimated by law. All of these developments are seen as the work of the devil, with the American example standing (in the words of the late Ayatollah Khomeini) as “the great Satan.”
- Religious Aggression. Here, of course, the reputation is inherited from a very distant past. But Muslim terrorists regularly identify the west as the land of the crusades, those medieval wars of western Christianity that were directed against the Arabs. In belated retaliation for this past offense, ISIS stated when claiming responsibility for the Paris attacks that its goal was to “throw fear into the hearts of the Crusaders in their own land.”
For some and perhaps many Muslims, these are the features of the west as they perceive it. They are what define us in their eyes. But how do we define ourselves? To quote the late cultural historian Jacques Barzun when seeking to define the west, “who is we?” We are certainly of the west, but in our pluralistic age we scarcely know what this means.
We are a people with a long but complicated history. Are we the product of the Enlightenment, or of the classical civilization of ancient Greece and Rome that was “born again” through the Renaissance? Are we rather the product of Christian beliefs and values, however secularized they may have become in modern times? Are we a mixture of both, adhering to a kind of moral schizophrenia? Or are we now neither of these, but rather a people with few or no ultimate values by which to live? Have we become a civilization of practical nihilists?
One thing is sure. In the face of an enemy claiming the cultural and civilizational high ground, we would do well to remind ourselves of what matters most to us, and of who we are.
Image credits: Express and The Indian Express