The short essay that follows was my “opening statement” in the not-really-debate between all five T.A.s in Robert Hanna’s “Introduction to Ethics” class presented yesterday. After the statements were read, the floor was opened up to the students for questions, comments, and the like. To my surprise, I received a few questions of clarification but few objections from those students. (The TAs didn’t directly respond to each other’s arguments.) The students are now charged with the assignment of writing up short “critical response papers” on the subject. (I’ve omitted the footnotes, but my only real source was Daniel Pipes’ Militant Islam Reaches America.)
Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Bush formulated what came to be known as the “Bush Doctrine.” He claimed (1) that the U.S. would “make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them” and (2) that “every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” As a pre-emptive, nation-building war contrary to the wishes of some traditional allies, the war in Iraq raised considerable opposition at home and abroad. Yet Bush pressed forward, seemingly impervious to the objections of his critics. He seems to have talked tough and acted tougher — perhaps like the “American cowboy” sometimes charged. Meanwhile, Iraq seems to spiraling downward into a morass of civil unrest and deadly terrorism.
In light of all that, let me offer a sure-to-be controversial proposal: Bush is not really serious about effectively prosecuting his war on terror. Despite regime change in both Afghanistan and Iraq, he’s been pussyfooting around over the past three years, consistently conceding moral ground to the enemy, to the purveyors of the violent, oppressive, and primitivist ideology that is militant Islam. From what I’ve seen, I suspect part of the reason to be moral relativism.
As you might recall from class, moral relativism denies the possibility of universal ethical truths. Because different cultures have different moral codes, morality is said to be nothing but a matter of cultural opinion. Understanding, tolerance, and accommodation of the beliefs and practices of others are upheld as of paramount importance. But as Professor Hanna noted in class, just because people disagree about ethical principles doesn’t imply that all are equally valid. Some people and some principles might just be wrong.
So what do I mean when I say that President Bush’s policies regarding militant Islam are influenced by moral relativism? I mean that apart from matters of violence, he is unwilling to defend the fundamental values of Western culture as superior to those which presently dominate the Middle East, including militant Islam. When it comes to Western modernism, this-worldliness, rationality, individualism, and secularism versus Islamist primitivism, death-worship, mysticism, tribalism, and theocracy, President Bush is equivocal. How so?
As members of al-Qaeda, the 9/11 hijackers were motivated by militant Islam, a totalitarian ideology which seeks to destroy America by transforming it into autocratic Islamist state. Yet the Bush Administration has consistently refused to identify Islam as playing any role in the present conflict. Our response to 9/11 is defined in vague terms as part of a “war on terror” — even though terrorism is just a martial tactic, not a definite enemy to destroy. President Bush explicitly denies that the war on terror is “a war of religion, in any way, shape, or form” — as if the 9/11 hijackers had no religious ideology whatsoever. His administration bends over backwards to present Islam in a positive light though vague blandishments like that from a State Department official: “Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, preaches peace and nonviolence.” Multiple Bush Administration officials have flatly denied any clash of civilizations between West and East, often insisting that Islam is quite consistent with Western values. Similarly, President Bush insists — without debate or argument — that the violence of terrorism is a perversion of Islam. The Bush Administration routinely seeks to reassure American Muslims of our friendliness toward their religion, without ever asking that they publicly renounce or discourage violence, hatred of America, or militant Islam. President Bush has treated freedom as a self-evident and universal value, even though the freedom sought by far too many Muslims is the “freedom” to oppress and dominate their neighbor with religious law. In Iraq, our military has been reluctant to bomb or shoot into mosques used as cover by militants out of respect for Islamic holy sites, even though that policy risks American lives by providing the enemy with safe haven. All in all, it seems that the Bush Administration mostly objects to the violent methods of the 9/11 hijackers, not their goal of transforming America into an Islamist state.
In essence, the Bush Administration is floundering in its own moral fog. It refuses to identify its basic enemy as militant Islam. It defends Islamic values as morally equal to Western values. It often subordinates military victory to Muslim goodwill. It focuses on the violent methods of some militant Islamists rather than the more dangerous goals of the ideology. In order to avoid the charge of cultural imperialism, the Bush Administration is routinely lapsing into cultural relativism. As a result, America lacks a clear vision and purpose in this conflict — and that undermines our capacity to eliminate the grave threat posed by militant Islam. The corresponding impression of weakness and self-doubt emboldens the militant Islamists’ dreams of transforming America into an Islamist theocracy.
Successfully defending ourselves in this present conflict requires a deep understanding of and appreciation for what is at stake: Western culture. In the face of the cultural imperialism of the militant Islamists, moral relativism is not a viable option. Nor is cultural relativism true, for by any reasonable standard, the essentials of Western culture — values such as individual rights, rule of law, limited government, rationality, this-worldliness, and peaceful trade — are infinitely superior to the authoritarianism, racism, death-worship, and theocracy advocated by militant Islamists.
Some people claim that such a perspective amounts to cultural imperialism, to forcibly imposing our Western values upon an unwilling Middle East. If so, then perhaps we’re no better than the militant Islamists seeking to impose their culture upon us. In fact, our options are not limited to either cultural relativism (regarding all cultures as morally equal) or cultural imperialism (imposing our cultural values upon others). The view at work here is perhaps best described as “cultural objectivism,” for it aims to (a) judge all cultures, including our own, by rational and appropriate moral standards and (b) defend the cultures which uphold those moral standards (by force if attacked). To make such moral distinctions is not merely morally permissible, but morally obligatory.
From the perspective of cultural objectivism, either you’re with us or you’re against us — and it’s time for President Bush to choose sides.