Intervention in Syria Resurrects Hegel and the Dialectic of History. Or, does it?

In the pages of the National Review Online, a respected conservative publication, AFLC’s Advisory Board Member, Andy McCarthy, has been engaged in a very good debate with another top-rate mind, Michael Ledeen, on the question of the U.S. intervening in the insurrection in Syria.  Ledeen takes the view that we should intervene in the name of modest western liberal democracy nation-building, or, at least, in the name of the promotion of the potential for such nation-building. McCarthy, on the other hand, takes a more realistic view of much of the Muslim world’s embrace of sharia and its natural hostility to western civilization and interests. He advises a careful watch-and-see approach where the U.S. is more likely to advance its interests by allowing the two sets of bad actors to degrade their respective war capabilities through war with one another (a la Iraq-Iran war), thereby reducing their focus and capability to war against us.

Given the last round of this debate, AFLC’s co-founder, David Yerushalmi, has offered this “friend of the court” brief, in support of McCarthy’s position.  But, to allow our readers the opportunity more fully to engage with this debate, we provide the links to the earlier McCarthy-Ledeen exchanges here:

McCarthy Round 2 here.

Ledeen Round 2 here.

McCarthy Round 1 here. 

Ledeen Round 1 here. 

McCarthy original Syria column here. 

David Yerushalmi’s amicus brief follows:

At the risk of being gauche, I would interject the following as an amicus brief in the McCarthy-Ledeen debate. I think highly of both men–Andy I know personally, of course. For full disclosure, I am firmly planted in the McCarthy camp. What I wish to do here is present an argument against the Ledeen “dialectic.”

As to the false straw man Ledeen seems to construct out of McCarthy’s work–that it is all Sharia-inspired jihad all the time, McCarthy has properly referenced his best work, The Grand Jihad, on the marriage between the progressive/radical left with the hegemonic movement of the mujahideen. My brief, however, relates specifically to Ledeen’s two claims that underpin his ultimate argument.

Ledeen’s first claim is that the sharia-faithful are driven by a tyrannical “ideology” in the way that Marxists-Stalinists or Nazis were in their heyday. (“Religion is part of that dialectic.”) This leads him almost ineluctably to his second claim: that jihadists are born out of the persuasion that the underlying “ideology” is logically correct and will be borne out by its empirical victory in history. Thus, he writes:

Hegel was right when he said that ideas and “reality” are intimately connected. Ideas gain power when their believers triumph, and they lose power when the reverse takes place (ask Obama: Elections matter. Winners dictate rules, etc. etc). Religion is part of that dialectic. And here’s what I think is Andy’s blind spot: It’s not all about Islam, any more than it’s all about Iran. Of course Islam is important, very important. It provides the language in which the jihadis express themselves. But that language is subject to change. In both directions. There weren’t as many jihadis a generation ago as there are today. Why? Not, in my opinion, because of the persuasive powers of jihadi imams and sheikhs. Rather, because the new followers were persuaded that jihad was going to win, and, because they feared for their safety if they didn’t convert to jihadism. If the jihadis lose, their doctrines become less attractive; they pass into history as failed revelations. If they win, the mass movement becomes more massive, discouraging its enemies as well as inspiring its faithful. Which is why it’s so important to defeat them.

I will avoid a deep philosophical and historical discourse of the term “ideology,” but leave it at this. When men understand that their “ideas” of human nature and political order are man’s rational discernment of the truth of human existence, by necessity then the “ideologies” that provide the overarching explanation of these “ideas” should ultimately be tested by history. What Ledeen calls the “dialectic.” But even this does not appear true in fact. More on this later.

But, men of faith, on the other hand, whose “ideas” of human nature and political order are determined by Transcendence and which emanate from outside of human existence (the godhead), are prepared to suffer empirical proofs to the contrary without any loss of faith. The observant Jew has suffered such empirical proofs for more than 2,000 years without any loss of faith.  Indeed, such revelatory faith systems have built into them the explanations that are beyond nature, or, supra-rational, entirely unempirical explications of these apparent factual inconsistencies. This is why it is faith.

Thus, historically men of faith, notwithstanding the brute facts to the contrary, do not “pass into history as failed revelations.” The Jews certainly have not. And, the faithful Jew is just as certain that the Messiah will come and restore political order to the Jews qua Jews (not as modern socialist Israeli Zionists).  And, notwithstanding Ledeen’s bona fides as a “cultural historian,” his rendition of sharia-driven Islam’s cultural history is wanting in critical aspects. Specifically, the sharia-faithful within the Islamic world have waxed and waned in numbers, authority, and power throughout the history of the Islamic Caliphate, but one would be hard-pressed to correlate that modulation with the historical success of Islam’s political/military aspirations. Even after the devastating loss of the Caliphate with the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and the growth of secular doctrines among Arabs and other Muslims (i.e., of the Indian subcontinent)–doctrines such as pan-Arabism, Baath-socialism, and even western style nationalism, these doctrines were almost always embraced by the intelligentsia yet rejected by the Muslim religious elite and by the masses. Per Ledeen’s “dialectic,” Muslims around the world should have rejected sharia as a “false ideology” given the corruption and destruction of the Caliphate. More, following the failure of fascism, monarchism, and socialism in the Muslim world in the 20th century, the Muslim masses should have chosen some yet new “thesis” to apply to the dialectic–say classical liberal democracy which has, with all its failures and warts, been the most successful of “ideologies” in the post-Enlightenment world. Yet, throughout the Muslim world, western style liberal democracy has been soundly rejected with a return to sharia.

Now, Ledeen might argue, as many do, that this is all because the Muslim tyrants who so manhandled their respective societies, were backed by western liberal democracies, which resulted in the Muslim masses rejecting the less-than-invisible hand of the capitalist colonialists. But, that doesn’t fit the “dialectic.” Sharia failed in history. And, while the western colonialists presumably have aided and abetted the failure of the modern tyrants leading to the ruination of the Muslim world, the colonialists were and are still the victors. Why would these Muslim masses return to a “failed revelation”?

The answer is embedded in an oft-repeated explanation, typically advocated by the “sharia” scholars in academia (Hallaq) and the legal scholars of Islamic history (Noah Feldman). Sharia was never blamed for the destruction of the Caliphate or sharia’s failure to actually operate as a fair and just political ordering “ideology.” With each failure of the Caliphate, including its ultimate destruction, the explanation has always been that the failure was not in the perfect law of Allah, but man’s failure to implement this perfect law perfectly. For a man who accepts sharia as the perfect law of Allah will always have ready at hand the explanation of its failure in man’s failure.

Now, maybe at some future time, the Muslim world will respond to the empirical/historical failure of sharia the way Christians and Jews have, when, each in their own way, they confronted the failure of their theologically-based political orders. Christians, tired of the internecine wars that would have destroyed the Christian world, finally came to the conclusion that political order should be rendered unto Caesar. The Jews, following the destruction of the Second Temple and the Jewish Commonwealth, developed the legal concept that Jewish political order will only return to the Jews in the messianic era as a miraculous eschatological moment. Until then, Jews were to be citizens of their respective host countries and abide by the principle of dina d’malchusa dina (the law of the land is the law). But, there was nothing embedded in human nature that drove these responses. Each was theologically unique to the existing faith system Christians and Jews had accepted on faith, respectively.

Indeed, Ledeen’s diaclectic, borrowed from Hegel, doesn’t even appear to explain the resiliency of failed “ideologies” crafted by men as wholly rational explanations of man in political society.  So it is we might ask, is it Ledeen’s position that statism has gone the way of the dustbin of history as a natural consequence of its failure throughout history? Why then does transnationalism and statism of the global variety remain so vibrant? It seems, does it not, that Ledeen’s dialectic does not even explain “man-made” ideologies entirely reliant on facts in nature and exposed by history as either valid or invalid.  And, by way of explanation, the reason the modern statist is able to overlook the historical failure of statism is that the ideological system builds into itself an explanation for failure and the refusal to take note of brute contrary facts. Man’s “progress” seems less than “progressive,” and hardly rational in the way Ledeen suggests.

At the end of the day, Ledeen’s world of the dialectic sounds very much like Hegel’s view of Time as Transcendence, or in the more vogue parlance of the Academy, History, in the context of “Progress,” as the transcendent perch upon which man rises above the nihilism inherent in modern relativism.

Here is a data point for Ledeen to consider: he writes:

But that language is subject to change. In both directions. There weren’t as many jihadis a generation ago as there are today. Why? Not, in my opinion, because of the persuasive powers of jihadi imams and sheikhs. Rather, because the new followers were persuaded that jihad was going to win, and, because they feared for their safety if they didn’t convert to jihadism.

Why does Ledeen choose this time horizon of “a generation ago”? The explanation for his empirical observation, even if arbitrarily chosen, is rather patent. A generation ago, Muslim tyrants jailed and murdered their jihadist foes. The mujahideen went underground. When allowed to prosper, as in the post-Kemalist Turkey that sought to embrace western notions of religious freedom in order to join NATO, the Islamists resurfaced with a vengeance.

That leaves us with the criticism of Ledeen’s dialectic we raised at the outset: How does Ledeen explain the longevity of the jihadist sharia “ideology” given its abject failure in history?  Indeed, its short-lived Mark Twain like pronouncement of demise during the period of Muslim secular tyranny of the 20th century appears, at least to this observer, a bit premature. At the first failure of secular tyranny, what survived and is now thriving should have, per Ledeen, been left in the grave of History/Progress only to be replaced with what “empirically” has succeeded in the modern world.  Ledeen’s dialectic appears anything but dialectic.