Islamic terrorism challenges the West to renew its moral and spiritual vision

by Peter Corney.

Frank Ferudi the English sociologist has made the very insightful point that the efforts of Western countries to stem the flow of young men from Western Islamic communities to fight under the ISIS flag will not be successful until the West renews its own moral and spiritual vision. He writes “Until Western society articulates its own moral vision of a good society, it will struggle to contain the influence that Jihadist political theology exercises over its target audience.” He points out that political arguments about the superiority and virtues of liberal democracy rarely succeed in overcoming the recruiter’s claims that in fact the effect of the Western way of life is actually morally corrosive on young people of Islamic faith. That’s an argument that it’s very easy to find evidence for in the present state of our culture, not only among Islamic young people, but among Western young people in general! As Ferudi puts it “The language of good and evil appears more convincing than arguments based on secular logic and reasoning.” (The Australian July 25/26 2015)

Long before the rise of Islamic terrorism and ISSIS there have been a number of voices in the West calling for a renewal of our moral and spiritual vision. George Weigel’s book “The Cube and the Cathedral” (2005) is an articulate example among many. The social fabric of our culture is under enormous strain as the stability of the family and our experience of community has eroded and substance abuse has escalated. While we have never been so prosperous, never had more people in tertiary education and never had better health care, we now have more dependent children in state care than ever before, a third of our marriages end in divorce and we are experiencing escalating family violence. One woman per week is killed by her partner in Australia today! Our state institutions that are tasked with providing child and family welfare, and the justice system that attempts to administer intervention orders, are all in a constant state of crisis. In 2013 Mark Latham wrote a very insightful essay in the Quarterly (QE 49 2013). He spoke about the rise of an ‘entrenched underclass’ in Australian society who are trapped in a repeating cycle of generational family dysfunction and unemployment, they have lost the skills and habits of healthy family life, without the motivation to take advantage of the many schemes that are available for personal development, rehabilitation, job retraining and education. Fortunately, due to our generous welfare system, they do not live in the physical poverty and hunger of ‘The Great Depression’ years, but they live in a social, psychological and spiritual poverty. He describes them in this way: “….this group has gone feral, leading lives of welfare dependency, substance abuse and street crime.” Political parties of both left and right seem unable to solve this.

The problem with using the virtues of democracy in our arguments is that we have drifted away from many of the values that contributed to shaping it and the idea of a “common good”. These were largely Christian ideas and values; remember Western culture is the product of 2,000 years of Christianity.
For example: out of the Christian belief in our creation in God’s image and the incarnation of Christ we derived the idea of the value of the infinite value of each person and their human rights and individual freedoms. The political expression and evolution of these was a great step forward in our social and political life. (The origins of this process go right back to the struggle in England by the Christian Protestant Dissenters to be free to decide their own religious affiliations and places of assembly. That struggle resulted in “The Act of Toleration“ in 1689, a milestone in the development of human rights. Interestingly those struggles were about both the individual’s right to freedom of belief and the group’s right, in their case the small Christian communities dissenting from the State Church.)
One of our difficulties now is that the right of individual freedom has developed into a hyper individualism where the individual feels there should be no restraints on their right to choose or decide on any particular life style, and no restraint on saying what they think or feel regardless of others feelings. The old Christian idea of personal freedom was that we were made both free and responsible by God, free to overcome our weaknesses and self-interest so we might responsibly accept our duties and serve others – free for service. This is long gone and replaced by the idea that we are free from any restraint on our choices. This idea is daily reinforced by the market and consumerism. When freedom or equality or tolerance is elevated to the place of supreme virtue they tend to overpower all other virtues that could moderate their excesses. Unfortunately our fallen human nature makes excesses inevitable.
If we take the three classic political virtues of “freedom, equality and fraternity (or community)”, which as Charles Taylor has pointed out in his writing on ‘Secularism’, currently seem to be the only ‘moral virtues’ of modern liberal democracy, then clearly this new idea of freedom has overpowered one of its own virtues – ‘fraternity’ or the ‘common good’ of the community. A commitment to the ‘common good’ requires Hobbes’ ‘social contract’ – that citizens must be willing to sacrifice to the community and its governance some freedoms in exchange for the community’s protection of their other freedoms .If our hyper individualism continues on its current trajectory and the erosion of the commitment to ‘the common good’ continues then liberal democracy will become difficult to govern and may in the end founder. It cannot survive without this commitment, nor can it survive without a common moral and spiritual vision, indeed the two are intimately connected. As many of the framers of the American Constitution believed – “Freedom requires virtue and virtue requires faith.”

A common moral and spiritual vision that is informed by ideas and values that transcend our human self-interest is necessary precisely because of human frailty and selfishness. These values have almost always been informed by religious faith. When the discussion is moved into categories of moral corruption, good and evil, as Islamic extremists will do, the possession of a vital moral and spiritual vision for our society is critical. While the strength of secularism is that it can protect us from the excesses and oppression of religious fundamentalists its great weakness is its rejection of any transcendent values. At its best, liberal democracy in the West has enabled us to value and include the contribution of religious faith in the democratic process while at the same time maintaining a separation or healthy distance between Church and State. This is largely due to the historical evolution from established Churches and the influence of Christian values on Western democracy. With the knowledge of this history now a distant memory, or completely unknown for many, we are in danger of losing the valid place for faith in the public square under the pressure of a new secularism suffering from historical amnesia.

As Ferudi explains this state of mind renders us very vulnerable to the sense of moral and spiritual superiority that underlies and is expressed in Islamic fundamentalism and Jihadist terrorism.