The West and the Rest, by Roger Scruton

The latest tract on Western superiority gets Islam embarrassingly wrong, argues Faisal Bodi
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The West and the Rest

The attacks of 11 September 2001 spawned a library of literature, usually from poorly qualified authors seeking to explain the atrocity by reference to some essential conflict between Islam and the West. Roger Scruton is the latest dilettante to clamber on to the bandwagon-cum-gravy train, locating the fundamental difference in what he perceives as the two world views' opposing conceptions of political authority and membership.

According to Scruton, Muslims see themselves as part of a global community under a God who, at the same time as demanding absolute political allegiance, largely neglected to furnish His charges with the tools to regulate their interaction. This stands in contrast to Christianity, where Jesus' surrender of mundane authority to Caesar carved a secular space inside which men can define rationally the rules by which they live.

A supreme legacy of the Romans, this legal corpus has grown around the idea of territorial jurisdiction, by which individuals in a given area enjoy, in theory, equal authority and a share in power. Western nation states have endured because their members have such a stake in the political system and a role in the political process.

While Scruton's thesis might reinforce the defensive self-pride of Western intellectuals who see Enlightenment traditions under threat from the growing popularity and influence of Islam in Muslim and Western societies, it does little to elucidate the real causes of the war on terror. That's because, apart from a blinding cultural chauvinism, Scruton allows simplification to take the place of scholarship.

Some of his blunders are embarrassing and should alert most readers familiar with Islam to his poor command of the terrain. Quite where he gets the 10 per cent figure for zakat, the religious tax and third pillar of Islam, is anybody's guess, as is his statement that the first three caliphs of Islam, (as opposed to two, three and four) were assassinated.

Other errors have a more crippling impact. Scruton wrongly claims that ijtihad (denoting the process of continual renewal in Islamic law) is defunct, a belief that leads him to conclude it is archaic and inadequate. Although he pays brief tribute to Ottoman majalla, the first codification of fiqh (rulings from the shariah) in the 19th century, he fails to examine how such a precedent might form the basis for a modern state.

Nor is there any analysis of how contemporary states like Iran and Sudan have used the shariah as the basis for a political order and legal system, or how it functions in Saudi Arabia. European colonialism, which supplanted indigenous systems with European models, barely merits attention – except for the mention that it was a blessing for disintegrating credal communities.

Since Scruton's purpose is to demolish rather than understand, he also chooses to ignore the democratic seeds in Sunni political theory, which many argue provide a foundation for Islamic constitutional democracy. The theory presupposes political freedom for Muslims to select their ruler. True, the ruler is the agent of God as well as the people; but the debate here about sovereignty in democracies residing in the people instead of God is academic. There are few democracies in which some issues are not completely off the table. The US declaration of independence confers rights that cannot be abrogated.

The "clash of civilisations" is misleading hyperbole, diverting our gaze from the real conflict: a struggle by Muslims for the political freedom to choose to live according to their own sacred values. That it has turned violent is another question, whose answer lies more in the West's suppression of fundamental rights than an irrepressible urge to violence in an unaccommodating Islam.