Cultural symbols matter and what they now suggest is that the West is in retreat. This is a retreat in every aspect of life, from religion to popular culture. “Out of respect” for the Iranian president, who presumably would be offended by nudity, the Italian government had museum officials in Rome’s Capitoline place boxes over several nude statues – including one of Venus created in the second century BC – during Hassan Rouhani’s state visit.
It is often said that western ethnocentrism makes it difficult for leaders to understand Islamic culture. Rarely, however, does the reverse hold. Do Iranian imams attempt to embrace our culture? What Islamists do know is that the weakness in the West is palpable. From Scandinavia to Italy, governments are bending over backwards to accommodate minority Muslim populations for fear of violence and because there is a loss in civilizational confidence. President Obama, for example, is more likely to pay emotional tribute to Islam than the Judeo Christian culture he represents.
Sharia – the Islamic way of life including Islamic law – has penetrated the European court system. Several states in the U.S recently considered the application of Islamic legal precedents in American jurisprudence. Minnesota congressman, Keith Ellison, has proposed a sharia compliant transaction tax. When Mr. Ellison took the oath of office he swore his allegiance on a Koran rather than a Bible. Al-Waleed bin Talal has used his Saudi royal family fortune to invest in the West and make sizable philanthropic gifts as well. He is Citigroup’s largest individual shareholder, the second largest voting shareholders of 21st Century Fox and the owner of Paris’ Hotel George V. The Center of Islamic Studies at Cambridge bears his name, as does the Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University. His footprint is large and in critical areas of the culture. What Western officials and businessman smell is the money, but the scent of Islamism is overlooked.
This too is another sign of weakness. Rather than assert the independence and idiosyncratic virtues of our institutions, the flow of dollars seemingly trumps a defense of our traditions.
For many Islamists, the West is for sale, a civilization at the end of its cycle. This is a vulnerability imams count on. For many in the West, Islamic extremism is exaggerated – a figment of media illusions. Western popular culture dwells on guilt about race, colonialism, even imperialism. It cannot conceive of the idea Islamists believe exactly what they say – that they intend to resurrect the Islamic caliphate and, to do so, bring down the decadent West. In refusing to imagine Islamists might be beyond the pale of rational judgment, many bind themselves to delusions.
Weakness is derived from overestimating one’s capabilities and underestimating the intensity of an adversary. G.K. Chesterton noted “The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.” A culture in disarray has lost a sense of those virtues. It was argued in French verse “Cet animal est très méchant: Quand on l’attaque, il se défend.” [This animal is very naughty; when attacked it defends itself.] Alas, the West is attacked, but doesn’t know how to defend itself. It has passion without purpose; goals without direction. Le Rochefoucauld maintained “passion makes idiots of the cleverest men, and makes the biggest idiots clever.” That may explain the crumbling.