Allah Is Dead: Why Islam is Not a Religion by Rebecca Bynum (New English Review Press, $17.95)
Readers who pick up Rebecca Bynum’s provocatively titled new book will certainly expect to find there an unflinching critique of Islam, and in this respect, Allah is Dead does not disappoint. Those who are familiar with Ms. Bynum’s work through the web journal New English Review (where she serves as both Senior Editor and one of the leading writers) know her to be one of the most intelligent and fair-minded augurs regarding the portentous spread of Islam throughout the west, and that cautionary skill is fully demonstrated in her book. But Allah is Dead offers far more than the usual warnings about the dangers of Islamic doctrine, for what Ms. Bynum recognizes, and what she carefully explains to her readers, is that the impotence of western societies to resist the invasion of this foreign ideology is a consequence of their own pathologies. The greater portion of her book is devoted to addressing those pathologies, and applying the appropriate intellectual remedies; in the course of doing so, she offers a truly unique interpretation of the causes of western demoralization, and one which will undoubtedly challenge the comfortable assumptions of many of her readers.
Ms. Bynum lays out her case against Islam most forcefully in the first two chapters; her belief is that it is essentially an overly formalistic creed, which reduces the good life to conformity with a series of unquestionable dictates. Obedience, and not love, is its primary value. Man exists for the sake of Islam, and not Islam for the sake of man. It is fixated on the material world, and leads its adherents to similarly fixate on that same realm; the consequences of this fixation are at once a spiritual stagnation and the lust for territorial expansion: “the focus of Islam is entirely upon the material world. Its notions of pure and impure are expressly material as is its concept of religious sovereignty. Islamic sovereignty is territorial sovereignty, not the sovereignty of the spirit over the hearts of men.” In brief, Islam impinges upon the dignity of the individual, and asks its devotees to forfeit their intellectual and moral freedom, in ways that are perfectly unacceptable to western peoples, and thoroughly inconsistent with their cultures.
This is the point in the argument where we have come to expect appeals to our post-Enlightenment, secular values, perhaps spiced with some infantile railing against religion per se, as emanates, for instance, from that kindergarten of theological commentary known as the New Atheism. Much to her credit though, Ms. Bynum never peddles this modish yet facile line. To the contrary, she carefully explains how secularism has deracinated the very vocabulary which we need to confront Islam in an ideological struggle.
To say, for instance, that Islam threatens human liberty requires us to possess a sensible definition of liberty. However, in the modern west, the word has become so debased that it is used synonymously with any spontaneous motion of the will; to get what you want is to exercise your liberty. And this makes it all too easy for the Islamist propagandist to dismiss western liberty as mere libertinism. But this was never how liberty was understood before the advent of secularism; as Ms. Bynum notes, liberty used to be understood in the light of an essentialist metaphysics, as the ability of a natural thing to fulfill, or perfect, its nature: “we witness in living things a seeking after an ever more perfect expression. Plants, for example, are constantly moving and jockeying for a more perfect position in relation to light above and water beneath. There seems to be inherent in life a yearning, not simply to be, but to become, and to become ‘more perfect.’” It is this kind of liberty which is worth fighting for, and which we must oppose to the doctrinal strictures of Islam. But such a notion of liberty, of a nature free to perfect itself, can only be grounded in a recognition of “a universe containing moral law,” that is to say, in a pre-Enlightenment cosmology.
Similarly, Ms. Bynum rejects the fundamental liberal tenet (or, more properly, the fundamental liberal attitude) of ideological neutrality, that tenet which reaches its apotheosis in the contemporary cult of multiculturalism. She is at pains to emphasize that we have a positive duty to weigh and choose which creeds ought to be tolerated in a civil society, and which should not: “a man’s belief, that is, his fundamental view of reality, determines his attitude toward and reaction to the world of reality and to other human beings. Thus belief systems must be of utmost concern if one cares about the destiny of humanity.”
Nor should we ever mistake the nature of tolerance to such an extent that we exalt its importance above all else: “There are things that our society cannot tolerate and expect to survive. Justice must take its rightful place above tolerance.” What Ms. Bynum understands so well is that Islam is a narrative of final reference. It cannot be met in the polemical arena by pleas for ideological neutrality, since that is ultimately a nihilistic appeal – literally, an appeal to nothingness: “one cannot effectively counter the God of Fear with the God of Nothing.” Islam, if it is to be checked at all, must be checked by another narrative of final reference.
Unfortunately, the narrative routinely on offer these days from the western “intelligentsia” is the materialist, Darwinian one, according to which man is but one more branch hanging off the phylogenetic tree, whose every last trait – no matter how apparently distinctive – can finally be explained in terms of the brute, mechanistic causality of evolutionary history. On this scheme of things, free will is an illusion of our genes, notions of human dignity but the remnants of a recalcitrant anthropomorphism. If the tenor of these claims sounds familiar, that is because they match the essential philosophical purport of Islamic belief:
It is because science has progressively diminished man in his own eyes that philosophy has been stunted. We stand dumb in the face of confident Islamic assertions because we long ago abandoned the search for an effective and modern philosophical response to materialism. Islam is, in essence, an extremely materialistic religion, with many similarities to secular materialism: both remove human dignity and envision man as a slave.
It is ridiculous to suppose that we can offer a robust defense of human freedom if we all believe, like Richard Dawkins, that human beings are “robot machines.” It is absurd to think that we can stand up vigorously for human dignity if we are convinced, like Steven Pinker, that the very concept of dignity is a useless relic of a long obsolete cosmology. It is the height of folly to suppose that contemporary Darwinian materialism offers us any rational grip in the ideological tug-of-war which we must now contest with Islam, when it effectively pushes the same ugly theory of human nature as the adversarial creed. Yet it is obviously true that materialism is one of the enduring legacies of modern secularism. So Ms. Bynum has very effectively punctured the complacent self-regard of the typical modern liberal, wedded to his post-Enlightenment values, and convinced that the cure to our age’s ills is simply to persuade more people to think just as he does.
In contrast, Ms. Bynum offers the unabashed, and highly unfashionable, thesis that the proper answer to the challenge of Islam lies in the west’s return to religion: “When we contemplate how our rapidly decaying culture might be revitalized, the obvious solution is through religion, the ultimate basis of culture and the source of cultural nourishment.” Yet such a revival of religion should not be uncritical; Ms. Bynum makes it clear that there is much in the religious traditions of the west which needs to be rejected as well. Her book concludes with a chapter delineating the reasons why Islam should not qualify as a religion: it fails to nurture the individual or promote social harmony, among other things. But one can surmise that Ms. Bynum’s intentions pass beyond proposing a policy for wrestling with the advance of Islamic doctrine; what she is doing also is reminding us of what religion has been at its best, a means for enlarging the moral imagination, and an unrivaled vehicle for human exaltation and improvement. In very large part, we become what we believe: “Religion answers the primal question, what is the nature of reality? Do we inhabit a benevolent universe, a malevolent universe, or an indifferent universe? These are not trivial questions and their answers determine the basis of all human interaction.”
Because we in the west have been neglectful of our own religious traditions for so long, we have mistakenly assumed that religion itself is something unimportant. But it is not so; religion is the only important thing, and the future belongs to whatever creed offers mankind the most compelling and edifying picture of the reality that he inhabits.
Originally published at FrontPage.