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Not What Went Wrong, but Why it Went Wrong

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About the speaker

Robert R. Reilly is Director of the Westminster Institute. He has been on the board since its founding. In his 25 years of government service, he has taught at National Defense University (2007), and served in the Office of The Secretary of Defense, where he was Senior Advisor for Information Strategy (2002-2006).

He participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 as Senior Advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of information. Before that, he was director of the Voice of America, where he had worked the prior decade.

Mr. Reilly served in the White House as a Special Assistant to the President (1983-1985), and in the U.S. Information Agency both in D.C. and abroad.

In the private sector, he spent more than seven years with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, as both national director and then president. He was on active duty as an armored cavalry officer for two years, and attended Georgetown University and the Claremont Graduate University. He has published widely on foreign policy, the “war of ideas”, and classical music.

Among his many publications are:

The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, ISI Books, 2010.

Assessing War, “Assessing the War of Ideas during War,” Georgetown University Press, 2015.

Information Operations: Successes and Failures, Westminster Institute, 2014.

The Prospects and Perils of Catholic-Muslim Dialogue, Isaac Publishing, 2014.

The Westminster Institute was established in 2009 to promote individual dignity and freedom for people throughout the world by sponsoring high-quality research, with a particular focus on the threats from extremism and radical ideologies. The Westminster Institute is an independent non-profit organization that is funded by contributions from individuals and private foundations. It receives no government funding. The Institute holds briefings and events throughout the year. The events are free and open to the public.

He has also spoken at Westminster on the subjects of:

Closing of the Muslim Mind (October 17, 2016)

Deciphering the Middle East: Why the U.S. Usually Gets it Wrong (February 9, 2016)

Information Operations: Successes and Failures (September 6, 2013)

Dangerous Embrace: The United States and the Islamists (May 22, 2012)

The Challenge of Islam to the Catholic Church (February 4, 2010)


Robert R. Reilly:

Well, I was quite taken with Bernard Lewis’ little book What Went Wrong. I was working in the area of the Middle East in the Defense Department in the northern Gulf and what began nagging at me in my mind was the question, “Okay, I got it, what went wrong. You can see what went wrong all around you, but why? Why did it go wrong?” If you know about the flourishing of Islamic civilization, particularly in 9th century Baghdad where it wasn’t another civilization at the time of comparable level of sophistication other than perhaps the Chinese, certainly not Europe.

With all the promise that was inherent in the achievements of that time – it didn’t end in the 9th century – how did that once flourishing civilization end up in the close to totally dysfunctional state in which it is today? And that is not [me] saying that.

You can hear this from many Arabs themselves and particularly if you’re aware of the UN Human Development reports on the Middle East. You know about those? They began to be published annually around 2001 and so forth and went on for several years and the UN, cleverly enough, had only Arab, Muslim scholars write this study.

And so they marched through every level of human endeavor, the number of patents, the medical care, the level of education, etc., etc. and every one of them the Arab world ended up next to the bottom, but for one, and that one was sub-Saharan Africa and even there they made it to the bottom in one of those categories. So, GDP productivity, the number of books published, the number of books translated, all of this showed a kind of intellectual and cultural implosion and you begin to ask, what happened? Why did it happen? We know what happened.

They speak of this themselves. So I began an investigation that was kind of an intellectual detective pursuit and it took me many years of reading, chatting before I had a eureka moment that my wife reminds me of shouting out, “I’ve got it!” I got it when I was reading 9th and 10th century Muslim theological texts that had to do with the nature of god and particularly with the relationship between god and reason.

This being a subject, by the way, of course, which every monotheistic faith has had to encounter. What is the relationship between God, Yahweh, Allah and reason? And various different answers have been given by the different forms of monotheism and some of them have changed over time.

Well, let me recall for you Pope Benedict XVI’s famous Regensburg Address. Are you familiar with it? Have you read it? Well, you’ll recall that the most notorious part of it that sparked riots in certain parts of the Islamic world was when Benedict quoted Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos, who of course was a captive of Muslim forces at the time and the dialogue was with his captor.

And Emperor Manuel II was talking about the relationship between faith and reason and the Emperor said that spreading faith by the sword is not according with right reason and that, open quotes, “Not acting reasonably is contrary to god’s nature,” unquote. Benedict said, “This is the decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion. I say it’s decisive because it presumes that god is reason and if he is reason, then it is immoral to impose force against conscience.”

Now, Benedict also talks about in this famous essay the de-Hellenization of Islam. He also talks about the de-Hellenization of the West. They happened at different times for different reasons but I think that remark about the de-Hellenization of Islam sort of blew over peoples’ heads because they didn’t know there was a period of Hellenization in Islam to begin with. But there was and it was quite extraordinary. And it happened I think for the following reasons.

Christianity, as you know, had been Hellenized centuries before and by Hellenized, I mean it had assimilated Greek philosophy, Plato and Aristotle, and you would see features of this Hellenization in Christian apologetics in the way they would argue about who god is, etc., etc.

When the Muslims conquered the Middle East and North Africa, these were all largely Christian areas and when they thundered out of Arabia, they had no philosophy, they had no theology. As you know, the Qur’an was the first written book in Arabic. There were records of famous Arabic poetry and so forth but no book.

So, they’re ruling over these vast Christian populations and inevitably the interactions would involve discussions about ‘this is who we say god is, who do you say god is?’ etc. So the Muslim intellectuals became acquainted with the style of argument in Christian apologetics and the same questions therefore arose in their minds. What is the relationship between Allah and reason?

And the very earliest theological school in Islam, called Mu’tazilites, answered these questions roughly the following way. God has given us our reason to come to know him. We examine his creation and what do we see? We see in ordered creation that things act for ends and that the end of everything is ordered to its creator.

Now, in examining this creation we can come to know, for instance, the difference between right and wrong and how to behave because what is right will accord with our nature as human beings and what is wrong will be against it. So we know that behaving well means behaving reasonably and doing something wrong is behaving unreasonably, going against reason, the very same terms that Palaiologos was to use those centuries later.

So, for instance, what about revelation? And by the way, what they said, well what we can arrive at is true, is true everywhere for everyone not just us Muslims. It’s true for the non-Muslims. If we can know right and wrong, that in according to our nature as beings, that applies to all humans. And therefore, by the way, they also said all knowledge of such things and of nature and science is admissible within Islam because if it’s true, it doesn’t matter from whom the truth comes so long as it is something that is true and with our minds we can ascertain this truth.

So the rational order in creation, the reason possessed by human beings and the fact that it comes from a god who himself is reason, who himself as is said in Christian revelation is logos, which is the Greek word for reason or Word, or in Genesis, God spoke his word and his word constituted reality. So reality is permeated by reason, by this rational order.

Now, how do we know god has spoken? Well, the first thing you have to figure out is whether there is a god and the Mu’tazilite theologians said the first duty of man is not to submit, it’s to reason, to inquire, to ask, and it’s only when you have established sufficient reasons to say yes, there is a god. Then the question arises, has he spoken? Well, there are various claims to revelation. Has god, for instance, spoken, Allah, spoken in the Qur’an?

Audience member:

Okay, so then, I would ask a question. The violence that you see – just the other day in Green Village, there was an explosion. They don’t believe what you’re talking about.

Robert Reilly:

Jack, you’re jumping ahead a couple paragraphs. Wait. I’m still back in the early 9th century. Don’t worry, you’re next. Thank you. Now, what the heck was I saying?

So what about revelation? And they say well, there are things in the Qur’an here if you take them literally can’t be true. It says god sits on a throne, that he has hands and feet, and we know from our reason that god is pure spirit, so he can’t have hands or feet, he can’t be sitting on a throne. Therefore, we are not meant to take this literally but to understand it metaphorically or analogically.

So what the Mu’tazilites would say is take those things which are not in accord with reason and bring them into accord with reason and therefore that is how you are to understand this. The Mu’tazilites were sponsored by Caliph Al Ma’mun in the 9th century, who was without doubt the greatest proponent and supporter of Greek thought perhaps in the history of Islam. And Al Ma’mun said that Aristotle came to him in a dream and he asked Aristotle, “What is the good?” And Aristotle answered him, “It is what is rationally good.” And Al Ma’mun embraced this answer, supported the Mu’tazilites, opened the Bayt al-Hikma, the great translation center in Baghdad, which was translating works of Greek philosophy, etc. into Arabic. And also, he sponsored Al-Kindi, who was the first Arab, Muslim philosopher.

What happened next? Well, the second school of Muslim philosophy arose called the Ash’arites after al-Ash’ari who had himself been a Mu’tazilite but then adjured it and point by point, he denied everything that the Mu’tazilites had asserted. The Mu’tazilites, by the way, were known as the people of god’s justice and reason because they said god is just, he won’t do anything unreasonable, he won’t reward those who disobey them, he he will punish those who disobey him, he won’t reward them, and he will reward those who do obey him. This is god’s justice and since he’s reasonable, he is reason, he will behave justly and reasonably, so we know what justice is.

The Ash’arites said no, no god is pure will and power. He’s not bound by anything. Famously, Ibn Hazm in Spain about the eleventh century, he wasn’t a Mu’tazilite but he thought the same general things, that god is not bound even by his own word. So you go from this idea that god is the word, god is logos, god is reason, to god is not bound by anything. He is pure will and power. He can do anything. The idea that you can say god can’t contradict himself is because of your own little human mind. God is not bound by such things.

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