Accessibility links

Breaking News

The Universal Hunger for Liberty

The terrorist attacks against the United States in September 2001 starkly brought home to Americans the scope of Islamic radicalism. A newly released book explores what its author believes is a desire for greater liberty in the Muslim world, which could curb the growth of religious radicalism in Muslim societies.

In this edition of Dateline, Sarah Williams examines the ideas set forth in Michael Novak’s new book The Universal Hunger for Liberty.

Michael Novak is the director of social and political studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. In his new book, The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is not Inevitable, he argues that freedom is sought not only by Christians and Jews but increasingly by Muslims as well.

He believs that the growth of global terrorism has been fueled by dictatorships that devalue human rights and personal freedom. And he believes that a dialogue on the need for liberty must take place between Islam and other faiths.

Sp eaking at a recent panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute, Mr. Novak says the international war against terrorism is being waged against a network that has adopted a perverted version of Islam:

"There has been a relatively small group of Islamic thinkers who depend on and feed off the Islamic tradition, that’s true. But whose motives, purposes and modus of action are willing to discard Islamic religion whenever it’s useful. In other words, they instrumentalize the religion. I think it’s hard to argue that they act out of the deep sources of the religion or are even interested in deepening those. They are interested in forcing their own political idea of what an Islamic state would look like, at any cost, at any price, by any method. And they are willing to kill Muslims as well as Christians and Jews or anybody else to get there."

According to Mr. Novak, Islamist radicals have a historical connection with fascism and communism: "I think the proper model of what we call today the terrorist is as well called, and this is a bit harsh, but I think it’s as well called Islamofacism, for this reason. Many of the leaders were deeply influenced by, when they tried to modernize, their cultures were deeply influenced by the ideas of Stalin and Lenin in communism on the one hand, and Hitler and Mussolini on the other."

Mr. Novak notes that North Africa, where many of today’s terrorists originate, had contact with the fascist forces of Nazi Germany and Italy during World War Two. And following the war, there were associations with socialist and communist philosophers and activists. From both sources, Mr. Novak says Islamist radicals learned the importance of organizing in cells, of maintaining secrecy and of committing terrorist acts on a grand scale.

However, Mr. Novak says it is wrong for Western nations to think that much of the Muslim world endorses violent tactics in the name of Islam. For example, the Al Qaida terrorist network has claimed numerous victims among Muslims themselves, as well as among followers of other religions.

"They are much less popular than the early reports after September 11th suggested," says Mr. Novak. "And I think we’re seeing more and more of the split in the Islamic world between the bulk of the people and the bulk of the leaders and thinkers and the terrorists, partly because the terrorists have been so cruel to Muslim populations, too, and so heedless of them."

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick says she is hopeful about Mr. Novak’s premise that Muslim nations want more liberty. But she remains troubled by the human rights records of many countries, particularly those in the Middle East:

"The problem is that until now, you know Muslims have not themselves given voice to liberties for all, any country, in any Muslim country, that I’m aware of in the world. Nor have they, in any country that I’m aware of, Muslim country that is, have they provided rights for all their citizens, least of all women."

However, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a resident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says promising political trends are beginning to take hold in the Middle East, especially in Iran."

"It is becoming understood that political legitimacy can only come from the ballot box. I mean, there is no doubt for example, in Iran that the leaders of the clerical regime there know very well that when [Iranian President Mohammed] Khatami won 69 percent of the vote in his first presidential election in 1997 that in fact that he, beyond a shadow of a doubt had more political legitimacy than [Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Khamenei or [former President Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani, the two major clerics in that system."

Iraqi-born Laith Kubba, the senior program officer for the Middle East at the National Endowment forDemocracy,has written extensively about democratization in the Muslim world. A Muslim himself, Mr. Kubba says the West must realize there are major differences among Islamic societies:

"Part of the problem again, other than the adjective, is why we need conceptually to make the clear distinction between the faith, which is a revelation, and its echoes throughout societies, cultures and histories, implementation and how it interacts, and how often we from a distance, call this whole world the Islamic world. And it’s actually the world of Muslims who follow that faith with all their diversities."

Mr. Kubba says Muslim extremists have inaccurately used Islamic concepts to carry out atrocities such as revenge killings and honor killings, enacted against women who are murdered by their male relatives because they suspect them of sexual impropriety:

"Revenge killing. It is absolutely, explicitly said in the Koran there is no way you can get into revenge killing, yet until today it is widely practiced in Yemen, in areas that have strong tribal culture. Another one is honor killing for women. There is absolutely the maximum reference, the maximum punishment is lashing that is Koranically mentioned. But killing a soul, this is not a Koranic practice."

Michael Ledeen, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, respects Michael Novak’s thesis that greater liberty in the Muslim world would help in the long run to curb radical tendencies, but he says the war against Islamic terrorism must be won first:

"It must be defeated. And if it’s not defeated, there’s no reason from within because these things don’t happen from within. They come out of conflict, they come out of where they are tested against other people being tested. When they lose, then they say maybe the whole idea was wrong. And then you can get at it. But I don’t think you can get at it until it’s over, and that’s why I’ve been saying all along, that these issues, terribly important, brilliantly exposed by you and marvelously argued, I think the time for them is not now. I think we have to win the war first, before we can get at them."

The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable, by Michael Novak emphasizes the need for dialogue and stronger ties between the Islamic world and other societies. Above all, the book underscores the need for greater democracy in the Muslim world to combat the religious extremism that leads to intolerance and terrorism. For Dateline, I’m Sarah Williams.