The Closing of the Muslim Mind: book review

The Closing of the Muslim Mind
by Robert R. Reilly - published by ISI Books, 2010 

Robert R. Reilly has written a book that may offer the key to both understanding and perhaps defeating the ongoing war of terror against the West. The book is entitled The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. As Angelo Codevilla's jacket blurb puts it: "Reilly shows what happens to a civilization when it fails to give reason its due. This book teaches and warns. Read it." Paul Eidelberg describes it as "a book surpassing in depth even the best efforts of Bernard Lewis. You will not only be enlightened, but you may also see how the West might prevent a new Dark Ages."

Reilly is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and a well-published writer with substantial government service, including a stint as Director of the Voice of America and senior advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Information in 2003. As a sideline, he is also one of our finest classical music critics.

In this book Reilly explains "why the restoration of reason to Islam is the only antidote to the spiritual pathology driving young men to attempted terrorist acts."

The Closing of the Muslim Mind comes as we ask ourselves what in the world we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan nine years after the attacks of 9/11, spending billions of dollars taken from the America taxpayers and sacrificing thousands of American lives, not to mention the perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan lives. Are we there to save the Arab and Persian world by imposing democracy à la Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush and his advisors (with disastrous consequences so far)? Are we simply acting as a republic intent on defending our own shores? Or are we (as our enemies view us) perhaps an empire trying to extend our power to protect our "interests," whatever they are?

Are we merely trying to exterminate Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and all forms of jihadist Islam, or are we, in the tradition of an eye for an eye, seeking payback for the almost 3,000 Americans who died in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?

Although the answers to questions such as these do not lie in Reilly's work, he marshals convincing historical evidence of the likelihood that the Christian West and the Muslim countries will remain incompatible, because we believe in man's power to reason--and they don't. And barring some sort of Islamic Reformation (which theologians such as Michael Novak do not rule out as impossible), jihadist Islam and the Christian West will remain in mortal conflict, as we have intermittently in the past. The difference now, however, is that Islamic nationalists may already be capable of using nuclear weapons, or else are on the verge of that capability, whether in war or as instruments of terror. Most worrisome, they have the will and the irrational theology to use them. In short, dialogue is not possible with those who are incapable of religious tolerance.

At the heart of Reilly's book is his argument that the

"…denigration of dialogue is due to the demotion of reason that took place in the ninth century struggle between the rationalist theologians, the Mu'tazilites and their anti-rationalist theologians, the Ash'arites. Unfortunately, for those who prefer dialogue, the Ash'arites won.

The Ash'arites' position was that reason is so infected by men's self-interest that it cannot be relied upon to know things objectively. What is more, there is really nothing to be known because 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 men. Therefore, in this double disparagement, reason cannot know, and there is nothing to be known."

All of this may prompt memories of the Islamic world's outrage when the just-elected Pope Benedict XVI told his audience in Regensburg, Germany, that not only is violence in the service of evangelization unreasonable and therefore against God, but that a conception of God without reason or above reason leads to that very violence. The then-Cardinal Ratzinger in his 2005 Subiaco address said:

"From the beginning Christianity has understood itself as the religion of the "Logos," as the religion according to reason. In the first place, it has not identified its precursors in other religions but in the philosophical enlightenment which has cleared the path of tradition to turn to search of the truth and toward the good, toward the one God who is above all gods."

Reilly writes, "Ultimately this theological view developed into the realist metaphysics of Aquinas which became the metaphysical foundation of modern science, as Fr. Stanley Jaki, a Hungarian theologian and physicist, explained in his voluminous writings on the origins of modern science. Jaki laid out, as well, the reasons modern science was stillborn in the Muslim world after what seemed to be its real start." Fr. James Schall of Georgetown University, states that "Jaki saw much of the rage in Modern Islam as due to its failure or inability to modernize itself by its own powers."

Reilly asks, "Are [the Islamists of today] something new or a resurgence from the past? How much of this is Islam and how much is Islamism? Is Islamism a deformation of Islam? If so, in what way and from where has it come? And why is Islam susceptible to this kind of deformation?" You will have to read his book to find the answers.

The Closing of the Muslim Mind also draws on British author Hilaire Belloc, who is increasingly being rediscovered as a prophet for our times in areas including economics, marriage, and family, but most notably here in foreseeing the return of militant Islam.

Belloc wrote in his 1938 book The Great Heresies, "Since religion is the root of all political movements and changes and since we have here a very great religion physically paralyzed but morally intensively alive, we are in the presence of an unstable equilibrium which cannot remain permanently unstable." Later in the book, Belloc writes that "[Islamic] culture happens to have fallen back in material applications; there is no reason whatever why it should not learn its lesson and become equal in all those temporal things which now alone give us our superiority over it--whereas in Faith we have fallen inferior to it." Perhaps Belloc intuited something like the control of a commodity like oil and the financial power that comes with it, or the possession of some fantastic weapon such as the atom bomb.

Reilly argues that "the denigration of reason and the primacy of force that developed within Islamic thinking after the suppression of the Mu'tazilites are what have produced the dismissal of dialogue." Bin Laden quoted his spiritual godfather Abdullah Azzam, in a November 2001 video released after 9/11: "Terrorism is an obligation in Allah's religion." Reilly's analysis is that "the restoration of the status of reason is the only antidote to the spiritual pathology behind this remark; it is also the only foundation in which real dialogue can begin- dialogue within Islam among its contending factions, and between Islam and the West."

However, Reilly doubts that this restoration is possible or at least likely. Therefore, those who are considered as enemies by jihadist Muslims must act accordingly using their God-given gift of reason. Could it be however, that the question of Faith is even more important than that of Reason? Unquestionably, there are millions of adherents of worldwide Islam willing to die for their faith. In what is left of the once Christian West, are there as many? I have my doubts.

First appeared in the American Spectator in the October, 2010, issue.



Father C. John McCloskey, III,

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