December 3, 2010
by David Satter
On September 11, 2001, I was over the Atlantic when the pilot on my Moscow to New York Delta Airlines flight made a puzzling announcement. He said there was a minor problem with the plane and we would have to turn back and land in Ireland. The other passengers were calm. No one appeared to sense that anything out of the ordinary was happening. I was less sanguine. I knew that if we were turning around in flight something had happened – and it wasn’t minor. When we arrived at Dublin airport, the arrival hall was mobbed and representatives of the airlines were trying to organize people to get into buses. A man in his 20s turned to me and said two planes had just crashed into the World Trade Center and a third plane had hit the Pentagon. The words hung in the air. My first thought was that we had just entered a new historical epoch.
For the greater part of the 20th century, the civilized world was menaced by the forces of secular fanaticism in the form of two ideologies, communism and Nazism that promised heaven on earth. On September 11, 2001, as if resurrected from a distant past, we were confronted with their replacement, religious fanaticism that promises paradise after death.
It has long been thought that religion, insofar as it is based on belief in God, cannot be totalitarian. After all, does not the recognition of a higher source of moral rules imply that standards of right and wrong apply to all men equally? But, unfortunately, religion is subject to human interpretation. In the case of Islam, the dominant interpretation, through the doctrine of “abrogation” eliminates the peaceful verses in the Koran and emphasizes the violent ones. By basing their actions strictly on this dominant interpretation, Islamic radicals are convinced that when they murder innocent people they are acting in the name of God. In reality, God has no role in their deliberations. Their allegiance is to man-made doctrine and they are attempting to deify themselves.
The same thing happened in the case of communism which was avowedly atheist. Marxism-Leninism too was a man made doctrine. But it was treated as “perfect science” as inarguable as “the axioms of geometry.” One can only marvel at the absurdity of this assertion. Marx stated that the protagonist of history was the industrial working class. Lenin substituted for the working class the communist party which was composed of intellectuals and understood the working class’s interests so much better than the workers themselves that in the case of a conflict it was perfectly justified in shooting actual physical workers. But such is the power of fanatical faith.
Nine years have passed since September 11, 2001. Unfortunately, the threat from this new form of fanaticism is far from exhausted. Communism could be defeated because it offered paradise in this world and when paradise was not forthcoming people lost faith. Radical Islam promises paradise in the world to come. It therefore can’t be defeated with the help of normal reasoning or logical demonstrations. Its adherents will not react to any argument except one – the logic of defeat. One of the reasons for the defeat of the Crusades was that the Crusaders began to wonder why it was if God was on their side that they kept losing. The same reaction is possible in the case of radical Islam. The islamists need to understand that their every confrontation with civilization whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere will lead to their defeat. Only this can convince them that they are misguided. Once this realization spreads among millions of moral robots, radical Islam, the latest manifestation of man’s capacity for barbarism, will disappear.
David Satter, a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and a visting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), is the author of It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past (Yale). Age of Delirium, a documentary film about the fall of the Soviet Union based on his book of the same name, was recently released.
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