Where's the Dialogue?

Faisal Shahzad, the suspected perpetrator of the failed car bombing in Times Square, is not big on dialogue. In a recently revealed e-mail, he criticized another Muslim by saying: "I bet when it comes to defending the lands, his opinion would be we should do dialogue, etc., which is not the proven way from history and has not worked in current time and will not work in the future because it simply wasn't the way of the Quran."

What is behind this reluctance to dialogue? Is it really Koranic? Shahzad’s denigration of dialogue has its roots in the demotion of reason that took place in the ninth century struggle between the rationalist theologians, the Mu‘tazilites, and their anti-rational opponents, the Ash‘arites.

Unfortunately, for those who prefer dialogue, the Ash‘arites won.

The Ash’arite position was that reason is so infected by man’s self-interest that it cannot be relied upon to know things objectively. What is more, there is really nothing to be known in that things – all created things – have no nature or order intrinsic to themselves, but are only the momentary manifestations of God’s direct will. Since God acts without reason, the products of his will are not intelligible to man. Therefore, in this double disparagement, reason cannot know, and there is nothing to be known.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us without much to reason about. The much revered Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058–1111), the greatest of the Ash‘arite thinkers, vehemently rejected those who thought otherwise, especially the Greek philosophers: “The source of their infidelity was their hearing terrible names such as Socrates and Hippocrates, Plato and Aristotle.” He concluded that “no obligations flow from reason, but from Sharia.” In other words, there is nothing reason can know that would morally impel a person to do a thing, or not do it. That can only be known from revelation.

But what about conflicting interpretations of revelation, either within Islam or between Islam and other religions – how are they to be settled? Not through dialogue, but by the only other means left available: the sword.

Moroccan intellectual Fatima Mernissi explains how the sword syndrome functions within Islam: “as intellectual opposition was repressed and silenced, only political rebellion and terrorism had any success, as we see so well today. Only the violence of the subversive could interact with the violence of the caliph. This pattern, which is found throughout Muslim history, explains the modern reality, in which only religious challenge preaching violence as its political language is capable of playing a credible role. . . . From then [the suppression of the Mu‘tazilites] on, fanatical revolt was the only form of challenge which survived within a truncated Islam.”

With the loss of reason, force becomes the only adjudicator – force against force. This diminished perspective is what we see manifested in Shahzad’s missive and in his behavior. It is redolent of an Al Qaeda declaration that bared its lineage to the medieval Muslim anti-rationalists, in its call for violence in direct opposition to philosophy: “The confrontation that we are calling for with the apostate regimes does not know Socratic debates, Platonic ideals, nor Aristotelian diplomacy. But it knows the dialogue of bullets, the ideals of assassination, bombing, and destruction, and the diplomacy of the canon and machine-gun.”

The denigration of reason and the primacy of force that developed within Islamic thinking after the suppression of the Mu‘tazilites are what has produced the dismissal of dialogue. They are also ultimately responsible for the line of thought that ends in the obscene statement of Abdullah ‘Azzam, Usama bin Laden’s spiritual godfather, which bin Laden quoted in the November 2001 video, released after 9/11: “Terrorism is an obligation in Allah’s religion.” The restoration of the status of reason in Islam is the only antidote to the spiritual pathology behind this remark and behind Shahzad’s attempted terrorist act. It is also the only foundation on which real dialogue can begin – dialogue within Islam among its contending factions, and between Islam and the West.

Robert R. Reilly is the author of the just released book "The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis" and foormer Director of Voice of America.

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