George Weigel on his new book, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism
HH: It’s odd on the eve of such an important political day to stop talking about politics for an entire hour. But it really isn’t talking about, not talking about politics, but the context in which this very important year of politics is unfolding. Joining me is George Weigel. He’s the distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. He’s a Catholic theologian, one of America’s foremost commentators on issues of religion in public life, as well as the biographer of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI. George Weigel, welcome to the program, good to speak with you.
GW: Thanks very much, Hugh, good to be with you.
HH: Thank you. I don’t have many one-sitting reads, but I sat down on the day after Christmas, and read Faith, Reason and the War Against Jihadism: A Call To Action, your brand new book in one sitting. I’ve since been back through it. It’s very startling, it’s very stunning, and it’s very well done. What led you to write it, George Weigel?
GW: About a year ago, Hugh, I gave a lecture here in Washington called the Things We Can’t Not Know: Five and a Half Years After 9/11, which I tried to pull together the nature of the conflict in which we find ourselves, ways to think about dealing with that, and some policy proposals. That was so well received at the time, this is, as I say, a year ago, that I decided to expand it into a small book, which I hoped would, frankly, raise the level of conversation in an election year. This is a one year book. Its intent is to get our fellow citizens thinking outside the soundbyte box on what I believe is one of the two great contests for the human future at work in the world today, the war against jihadism, the other great contest being the struggle to get some legal and regulatory framework around biotechnology. In both cases, what’s at stake is nothing less than the future of freedom, the future of human dignity, and we just haven’t gotten serious enough about this, it seems to me, as a country. So I wanted to identify the roots of this, explain why our enemies behave with such passion, and with such a sense of self-sacrifice, and then suggest some ways that over the long haul, we can prevail in this contest for the human future.
HH: George Weigel, I think you have succeeded, and I urged on my blog a couple of times this week, and I’ll be urging on the show, people interested in politics have got to get the book, but also give it to influencers so that they can reset how they’re viewing this election, because it’s really got to be about the issues in this book.
GW: I agree. I mean, I think it’s just, frankly, appalling that everybody, and I mean people of the sort that you and I would be inclined to support, as well as others, have simply not, in the first instance, named the problem, and in the second instance, are spending an enormous amount of time arguing about who was right or wrong about Iraq, and when were they right or wrong without locating that in the context of this larger struggle against jihadism, which I believe has been going on for at least ten years. I think you can, I mean, if you want to pick a point where we can say that al Qaeda in particular declared war on the United States, it was almost ten years ago in the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. That didn’t get our attention, and so we had the suicide attack on the USS Cole in the Port of Aden a year. That didn’t get our attention. And then we had a huge hole in the ground in Lower Manhattan, and one side of the Pentagon blown up. That should have gotten our attention. It got our attention for a while, but it hasn’t kept our attention.
HH: And I’ve got to point out that one of the reasons is you write about the default assumption of people confronting this that it can’t be happening this way…
HH: …of not taking the theology of our enemies seriously. And I think that is the default assumption especially of the mainstream media. And as a result, any effort to wake them up to this has fallen on deaf ears. They don’t want to believe that theology matters.
GW: Yeah, it’s really a large part of the problem, both in the United States and in Europe, the sense that secularization is the future, people can’t possibly be motivated in ways that shape history anymore by religious conviction, and this is a huge obstacle to victory, because unless we understand why it is that people are willing to make great sacrifices, we will not be able to propose nobler ideas that lead the people of the West to make nobler sacrifices in order to defeat this threat.
HH: I want to read from the very beginning of the book, Page 8, on the complexity of the situation facing us, because I think this is one of the things that voters have to keep in mind as they cast their ballots this year, is just how difficult the situation the U.S. finds itself in. I quote now from George Weigel’s brand new book, Faith, Reason and the War Against Jihadism, “The war is now being fought on multiple fronts, with more likely to come. Many are interconnected. There is an Afghan front, an Iraqi front, an Iranian front, a Lebanese-Syrian front, a Gaza front, a Somali front, a Pakistani front, a North Africa-Magreb front, a Sudanese front, a Southeast Asian front, an intelligence front, a financial flows front, an economic front, and energy front, and a homeland security front. These are all fields of fire. Some kinetic, others of a different sort, in the same global war, and they must be understood as such.” George Weigel, that requires enormous capacity on the part of our leaders, our elected leaders.
GW: Well, great issues ought to test our great personalities to seize the opportunity to defend the cause of freedom. And as I indicate at the end of the book, Hugh, I think this can be a great moment of national renewal. We shouldn’t look at this as simply one in a series of problems to be solved, but rather if we were to gather ourselves, to make the kind of arguments for the free and virtuous society that we’re going to have to make, if we gathered ourselves to understand better, more comprehensively the role of religious and moral conviction in public life, if we rationalized our homeland security policies so that political correctness was not driving the bus, but the safety of the American people was driving the bus, if we began to defund jihadism by getting serious about alternatives to petroleum as a transportation fuel, all of these are aspects of a genuine process of national renewal for the United States. So if I were a candidate for the presidency, I would cast all of this as an opportunity, that great challenges present great opportunities. And I believe the American people are willing to rise to the occasion.
HH: Before I go through with a few brief words about each of the fifteen key lessons, I’ve got to say as well, the optimism I took from the book, and it wasn’t a lot, there’s a lot of pessimism I took from the book, but the optimism comes from Benedict XVI’s willingness to start the conversation, and his capacity to do so in the right frame of mind. That is…the speech that drew so much criticism was in fact, maybe a turning point in the way the West wakes up and addresses this issue.
GW: Well, it’s also a turning point, it could be a turning point in the Islamic world. I frankly find it impossible to understand why the default position on Pope Benedict’s speech at Regensburg, you’re referring to…
GW: …in September of 2006, why the default position remains the Pope made a terrible gaffe. The Pope did not make a terrible gaffe. The Pope accurately described the twinned threats of faith detached from reason, so that you can believe that God commands you to do the irrational, like blow up the World Trade Center, and reason having lost faith in itself, so that the West no longer has the capacity to say here is why religious freedom, separation of religious and political authority in a state, civility, tolerance, democratic persuasion rather than coercion, here is why these things are morally superior. Those are the two sides of the great culture war in the world today, and the Pope hit it right on the head.
HH: Yes, he did. We’ve got a minute to our first break, George Weigel.
HH: Your first point is that the great human questions, including the great questions of public life, are ultimately theological. I agree with that. I think probably a majority of Americans do. But I don’t see a lot of people who are influencers in the media believing that.
GW: Well, if one is dealing with people of a secular cast of mind, I think you could even rephrase that and say substitute for theological issue of transcendent moral value.
HH: Hold that thought, George Weigel.
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HH: Mr. Weigel, as we went to break, we were talking about how theology matters so much. Lesson two in your book is, “To speak of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as the ‘three Abrahamic faiths,’ the three religions of the book, or the three monotheisms, obscures rather than illuminates. These familiar tropes ought to be retired.” As soon as I read that, I said oh, you’re going for broke here. You’re going to break the china.
HH: I mean, no one’s allowed to say that kind of thing, are they?
GW: (laughing) It’s a challenging statement, but I think it’s true, and I think serious Muslims with whom I’ve been in conversation would not find that an unacceptable formulation. The relationship that Islam has in its own self-understanding to Christianity and Judaism is simply incommensurable with how Judaism understands Christianity, and Christianity understands Judaism. In fact, this trope of the three Abrahamic faiths has no foundation in Islamic thought. It was invented by a French Catholic Arabist in the late 1920’s, who taught it to a generation of graduate students who then spread it throughout the world. And it’s one of these things that we become so familiar with because it’s used so promiscuously, that we then say wait a minute, what are we saying here? What does this mean? I’m a great believer in serious inter-religious dialogue. But inter-religious dialogue, as one of my Muslim colleagues, interlocutors has said to me, is not Kumbaya. It begins with the acknowledgement of serious differences, and tries to find, in this case, moral points of contact.
HH: You’re also a great believer in clarity, and I think you make an argument in Lesson three that, “Jihadism is the enemy in the multi-front war that has been declared on us, that can’t be refuted.” I am pleased that both Romney and Giuliani refer to the enemy as jihadism, as being a particular variant of radical Islam that the Takfiris embraced that says we can kill anyone at any time for any reason, because we’re right. And is it going to travel, do you think? Is it going to catch on?
GW: I hope so. I think it captures the reality of the situation, historically, which is that an intra-Islamic civil war that has to do with Islam’s very difficult encounter with modernity, and particularly political modernity, and such ideas as the right of religious freedom, or the separation of religious and political authority in the state, that intra-Islamic civil war in which Muslims declared jihad on their own, and for the sake of purifying the house of Islam, that is now broken out into the wider world. The second reason why I believe jihadism is the appropriate description of what it is we’re fighting is it’s what the enemy calls himself. And I believe in taking people seriously…
GW: …when they call themselves this. It is objected, it will be objected, it has been objected in the past, that the great majority of Muslims do not accept the jihadist definition of what the demands of Islam are. That is both true and completely beside the point. The fact is the jihadists believe that this is what their faith requires of them, and that’s why they behave the way they do. And if we don’t recognize that, if we indulge this weird, Victorian reticence about using the J word in public, then we are disarming ourselves in the face of an enemy who believes he has very serious warrant for what he is doing.
HH: I also found the next lesson very important. Now I have read Lawrence Wright and Victor Hanson and Mark Steyn, so I knew about this. But a lot of people don’t realize, as you say, that jihadism has a complex intellectual history, the chief points of which must be grasped in order to understand the nature of the threat it poses to the West. Most people think this is a movement out of a few caves in Waziristan, when in fact it’s virulent at this stage, but it goes back hundreds of years.
GW: No, it draws on early Medieval Islamic thought, it draws very heavily on modern Egyptian Islamic activist thought. Lawrence Wright does a wonderful job in describing this in human terms. Mary Habeck, whose book Naming The Enemy, I commend to everyone. It does a marvelous job of tracing the history of ideas here. How do you get from a guy in 12th Century Spain to the caves of Tora Bora, and ultimately, to Ground Zero? I drew on her work, and tried to condense all this in a way that without losing the essence of it, connects the dots so that people understand this is not something, as you say, that has simply arisen out of the fever swamps on the Pakistan-Afghan border, but has a real history, and a cultural history behind it that we have to understand in order to contest it properly.
HH: And Lesson five is that the jihadists take their history very seriously. Now it’s a history that rejects a lot of Western assumptions, and about the progressive understanding of history. But it’s a history that they hold very near and dear to their heart, and they don’t give up. No matter how much we think it’s insane for them to carry about the reconquista, they do.
GW: Well, here’s their problem, and it’s a deeply rooted one, and it’s one that the inter-religious dialogue, the genuine inter-religious dialogue, has to focus on. Mohammed was his own Constantine. There was no separation of religious and political authority in Islam from the beginning. This has made the Islamic encounter with modernity immensely difficult. It has also created an image of the future in the minds of jihadists in which they are defending the god-revealed truth of how humanity ought to live. And that’s a tough one. I mean, if we don’t understand that that’s what’s at the root of this, then we are not even at first base.
HH: George Weigel, we’ve got a minute to the break. You don’t mention in Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism any particular sense of the future. What do you think are the odds in the near term of a calamitous event, and by that, I mean a weapon of mass destruction wielded by the jihadists?
GW: I take very seriously what was done in Spain to try to interrupt or influence their election several years ago. I’m looking at Pakistan, as everyone else is right now. I hope we have got our homeland security act together, but I consider it an absolute certainty that there is going to be some effort, hopefully squashed, and hopefully, we’ll never know about, but an absolutely certainty that there will be an effort by jihadists to influence the United States election next year.
HH: I think you’re right.
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HH: George Weigel, Lesson number six, we’re not going to get through all the lessons, I’m trying to bait the hook here…
HH: …is one which is going to be profoundly upsetting to some of your readers. “It is not Islamophobic,” you write, “to note the historical connection between conquest and Muslim expansion, or between contemporary jihadism and terrorism. Truth telling is the essential prerequisite to genuine inter-religious dialogue, which can only be based on the claims of reason.” Your friend and mine, Mark Steyn, is being persecuted, and maybe prosecuted, in Canada for truth telling that has been labeled Islamophobic. It seems to me almost a conscious strategy on the part of some Muslims to render this conversation out of bounds.
GW: Well, that kind of activity’s only made possible because countries like Canada have gone so far over the Niagara Falls of political correctness that they’re willing to abrogate free political speech. I’m afraid there’s a fair amount of that in Western Europe today as well. The prerequisite for serious inter-religious dialogue is a frank acknowledgement of differences. Tolerance does not mean ignoring differences, as if differences don’t make a difference. Tolerance means engaging difference with civility and respect, but with a clear understanding of your own moral values as applied to politics, and why they’re worth defending. That’s the only kind of dialogue that’s going to support those Islamic reformers, and they do exist, who wish to create an Islamic case for civility, tolerance and the free society as we understand it.
HH: Where do you find them?
GW: Primarily in the United States. It’s not unlike the Christian-Jewish dialogue, which has prospered in wonderful ways in America over the last forty years. Why? In part, because Jews are secure in America in the way that they have not been in much of the Western world for the past 2,000 years. I think that the same is true of the Islamic interlocutors I’ve found. They tend to be here, not in Cairo, not in Rawalpindi. They tend to be here. That’s okay, because this is, this country remains the center of historical initiative in the world at this moment in time. And if this kind of conversation that I’m describing could be put together here, then it might be exported. But I think that’s why. I think it’s a question of being secure in a political community that has real grounds for living civility and tolerance.
HH: And will protect you if you attempt to do so.
HH: Lesson number seven, George Weigel. “The war against jihadism is a contest for the human future that will endure for generations.” You know, that is true. It’s hard for Americans to think in terms of generations. As Nixon used to say, the Russians, the Chinese thought in terms of century, the Russians in generations, and Americans in terms of next year. It’s very tough to get people to think in terms of that kind of a commitment.
GW: It is, but it’s also never been explained to the American people in those terms. There’s a kind of deprecatory attitude on the part of political leaders that suggest that well, the American people really can’t handle this. If we described it as jihadism, they’ll go crazy. If we say we’re going to be doing this for the next twenty years, they won’t believe us, they’ll throw us out of office. I think the American people are much more mature than that. I think the American people know that by Divine providence, as some would have it, by accidents of history, as others would have it, we are the principal defender of the freedom project in the world today. And in all of this alleged dissatisfaction and angst that we hear about so much in polling data running up to the frozen wilds of Iowa and New Hampshire in the next few days, I’ve heard very little about summoning people to a great enterprise. I think that’s what people are waiting for. They’re not waiting to be pandered to. They’re waiting to be summoned to greatness. And the candidate who can do that, who can describe the reality of this without overhyping it or underplaying it, who can say this requires a generational commitment from all of us, and who can figure out some way to get the Democratic Party, or at least some elements of it…
HH: In the game, yeah.
GW: …in the game…
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HH: Mr. Weigel, you’re a theologian, and I think it’s providential that we’ve had George Bush and Benedict XVI in their respective positions, and before that, John Paul II. But does the Roman Catholic Church, which has a necessary leadership role, because it does represent so much of Christendom, do they have the bench strength behind Benedict XVI, because he brings a unique ability to these times, as he’s demonstrated over the last two years.
GW: I think that’s a fair question, Hugh, to which the answer is I hope so. We will see what impact the Pope’s clarity of mind, as demonstrated at Regensburg, and as I believe he will demonstrate when he addresses the UN in April, we’ll see what impact that has on others. I think that the Church is very, very aware, Church leadership around the world is very, very aware of the perilous condition of Christian communities, Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic, in the Arab Islamic world. I think the Church is increasingly aware that robust defense of those communities, rather than the appeasement of Arab fashions, is the only path to safety for those communities. So I think this is moving in the right direction, but I hope the Pope takes it further when he comes to the United States in several months, and particularly when he talks to the UN, because he can say these things that we’ve been discussing in a way that no president, prime minister, party secretary, governor, senator, whatever, can say, and he can put stuff on the table in a way that no political leader can do.
HH: Can he demand, will he demand of his bishops and priests and loyal laymen that they take seriously that which needs first to be taken seriously? I know he’s speaking out to the theologians of the world, but will he ask his brother bishops to do the same?
GW: I think that on the question of religious freedom, which is where the rubber hits the road on this for Catholics, and indeed for Christians living in the Islamic world, I think the Pope has made very clear that he expects everyone in the Church to be a defender of religious freedom of everyone.
GW: Religious freedom for Catholics is not a matter for Catholics only. It’s a matter of the defense of the basic human rights, and I think the word is out that everybody needs to get with the program on this.
HH: There was very few, as cheering things toward the end of the year, as the picture that emerged from Baghdad, Mass being resumed at the Copt Church there with Shia in attendance. And that takes me to Lesson ten. “In the war against global jihadism, deterrence strategies are unlikely to be effective, because it’s almost impossible to deter those who are committed to their own martyrdom. And the lesson just before that, in the war against jihadism, the political objective in the Middle East and throughout the Islamic world is the evolution of responsible and responsive government, meaning that we’re only going to get this thing resolved if religious freedom becomes part not just of the Western canon, but of the Muslim canon. Is that possible?
GW: At least religious toleration.
GW: I mean, ultimately, I would like to see an Islamic case develop for religious freedom the way there is a Catholic case developed, which took some 200 years to do. For the moment, I’d be happy to settle for religious tolerance for a real separation between religious and political authority in the state, for an understanding that the imposition of sharia law on non-Muslim communities is an offense against Islam itself. That would be a step in the right direction. I use this phrase responsible and responsive because I think the experience of recent years suggests that using the D word all the time, democracy, while I am an enthusiastic supporter of the democratic project, probably, like three Abrahamic faiths, obscures more than it illuminates. There are going to be different forms of democratic self-governance in different cultural situations. What’s emerging in the Emirates right now is an interesting new form of responsible and responsive government. What could emerge in Iraq is going to inevitably be a distinctive form of responsible and responsive government. I think that language is probably better suited to the long haul strategy that we need to implement.
HH: You were very persuasive in that argument, that democracy does not mean Western Constitutional style democracy. It does mean much, much more than that. But I want to ask you, I doubt you’re aware of Father Fessio on this program a year ago relayed a lecture he’d heard the Pope give to his students, saying the trouble with Islam is of course that the Koran is the word of God, not an interpretation, something you deal with here. And I don’t know how you get past Dhimmitude, George Weigel, which you discuss at length in this book, towards genuine religious tolerance. Do you think those two can coexist?
GW: Well, it’s an issue, Hugh. I mean, the question that Father Fessio was referring to the Pope referring to, I actually discuss in the book, and that is while Jews and Christians believe that the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were inspired by God, the Islamic claim is that the Koran was dictated, syllable by syllable. Inspiration leaves room for the activity of the human author, and therefore, leaves room for interpretation by subsequent generations. Dictated means it means what it says, period, that the black letter text is the meaning. Now where there is room in Islam for development is in jurisprudence, in the interpretation of legal canons, not only in the Koran, but in other forms of Islamic sacred writing. So that’s worth, it’s worth working on, on that side, on the jurisprudential side, on the kind of arguments about the interpretation of laws. But are we going to get a form of Koranic exegesis, interpretation paralleled to what Jews and Christians do vis-à-vis their scriptures, that’s, I would think…
HH: It’s problematic. I’ll be right back with George Weigel.
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HH: Mr. Weigel, let me close by asking you if you share one bit of good news with, an assumption that I have, and that is, I’ve got a virtual bookshelf which I consider to be the books that are indispensable, and they’ve got Victor Davis Hanson and Mark Steyn on there, and Lawrence Wright and Robert Kaplan, and Norman Podhoretz, and recently, Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins’ new book on nuclear jihadists, and now your book. And I’m beginning to think maybe the intellectual capacity of the West is beginning to rush reinforcements to the battle of ideas that just weren’t there in the first three years. Do you see that happening?
GW: Yeah, I do, Hugh, and I think it’s heartening, because the people you just mentioned are not all out of one political camp at all. I think there is, as you say, the reinforcements are coming. The question that really needs discussing in this campaign and in the next administration is how do we translate this increasing understanding we have of the problem into effective public diplomacy for dealing with it abroad, because believe me, broadcasting Britney Spears on Arabic language radio stations is not the answer.
HH: That was horrible to read, as you described it, yeah.
GW: I mean, unbelievable nonsense we’ve been doing on this front, unbelievable nonsense. This has got to stop, we have got to get into the argument game, let the free market take care of the broadcasting of entertainment, such as it is to that world. Let’s let Americans tax supported overseas broadcasting, in both radio and television, demonstrate the benefits of freedom, the fact that you can have serious arguments without cutting each other’s throats, the fact that democracy works to enliven religious conviction. Let’s stop getting, let’s stop being paranoid or defensive about the fact that America is a robustly religious society. Why can’t we explain that to the rest of the world? And the fact that that emerges precisely out of democratic freedoms and the civility and tolerance that they promote, that’s what we ought to be explaining to the world, not Eminem and J-Lo and Britney.
HH: And I think you’ve done a great, great service in making that argument, and hopefully it will spread and soon. Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call To Action is the brand new book by George Weigel, it’s available at Amazon.com, bookstores and of course, at Hughhewitt.com. George Weigel, thanks for joining us, I look forward to talking to you again in the future.
GW: My great pleasure, thanks for your help.
End of interview.