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D. D’Souza: Western Secularism and Islamic Revival

Address to International Leadership Conferences in Washington, DC, and New York, 2007


I was reading an article recently written by the former Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. It was called “Modernization without Westernization.” Lee Kuan Yew was saying: “I came to America and I fell in love with America in the 1950s.” And then he said: “I fell out of love with America in the 1970s.”

In other words, he fell in love with one America and he fell out of love with another America. What’s the difference? “In the 1950s,” he said, “I saw America as representing freedom. I saw America as representing opportunity. I saw America as representing the kind of life that one couldn’t have anywhere else.”

I’m a native of Bombay, India. Actually my family is from a small part of India called Goa, which used to be a Portuguese colony. I came to the United States at the age of 16 as an exchange student. I went to high school here for a year and lived with American families. I went to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. While I was in college I became interested in the role that America plays in the world. As a result, the books that I’ve written explore what distinguishes Western civilization from other civilizations that have existed through history.

Secularism in Europe and the US

Quite simply, the rest of the world has become a lot more religious, and the West has become a lot more secular. These two developments have been occurring simultaneously. Secularism is far more advanced in Europe than it is in the United States. In European countries it is not unusual to have rates of church attendance that are in the range of 10 percent; 90 percent of Europeans don’t have any sort of regular or formal religious attendance or participation.

In the United States, rates of church attendance are considerably higher, close to 40 percent. But that still means that the United States is a largely secular society, and it’s secular in a deeper sense too. For a complicated series of reasons within Western civilization, the idea has developed that the way to respond to the religious wars that divided Europe in the past is to remove religion from the orbit of government, particularly the national government. In America we call it “separation of church and state,” so that even religious people don’t have a very visible presence in the American public sphere. Therefore, America appears to be even less religious, if you were to look at it from the outside, than it is.

American popular culture and the America exported abroad is the most secular side of America. In other words, popular culture is not a reflection of America as a whole. It tends to be a reflection of “bohemian” America. It is the America of Holly-wood, which is very different than, say, the America of Kansas City or Peoria, Illinois. In other words, the rest of the world is seeing an image of America that is not necessarily the real America.

Now this secularism is, within the West, regarded as a kind of an accomplishment, because it is a way of getting away from theological differences which are seen as unresolvable. Let’s take an example:

If you say that there are three persons in one God, and I say that there’s one person in one God, how do we settle that dispute? It is an unresolvable issue. Historically it has brought people to blows. So, in the West, the idea has been to remove that kind of dispute from political consideration to avoid conflict.

Religion is also a universal source of morality. There are secular ways of talking about morality. There have been important philosophers, from Kant to John Rawls, who talk about secular morality, but I have yet to meet a person who follows secular morality. Have you ever met a Kantian in everyday life? Most people follow morality through religion. Religion is the main incubator of morality, and the secular importance of religion in the world is that it provides ultimate accountability for a person’s actions.

What I mean by that is we all live in a world where life is unfair. We know that there are good people who come to grief. We know that there are bad people who succeed. So the question becomes: “Where’s justice?” If you are making decisions for yourself, you might as well say, why shouldn’t I be a bad guy if I can get away with it?

Religion introduces the idea of ultimate accountability. In Hinduism, if you act badly in this life, you will get your come-uppance in the next life. This is a small example of what I mean by this idea of ultimate accountability, this sense that even when nobody is looking, there is a divine being that is aware of what we do and the consequences that result from our actions.

Revival of piety among Muslims

Within our lifetimes, we have been seeing a real revival of piety within the world of Islam. Starting around World War II, there was a powerful movement in Egypt toward Arab nationalism. Gamal Abdel Nasser was the sort of leading figure of this, as his nation was coming from under the yoke of British colonial control. In the last 30 years you have seen a revival of Islam, not just in the Middle East but really all over the world. You see it in Malaysia and Indonesia, in India, in Turkey. You even see it in America. Today if you go on a college campus like Berkeley or Yale, you will see Muslim girls wearing a head scarf, and these are the daughters of bankers and venture capitalists. You would not have seen it 20 years ago.

There is an Islamic desire to apply religious values to the problems of today. The big question that’s being debated within the Islamic world is: “How can Islam help the Muslims to get out of the big mess that Islam has fallen into in the modern era?”

There was a time in history when Islam was competing with China for the title of the most advanced civilization in the world. Muslims are very conscious of that. They have a feeling that Islam has really sunk down, and in particular, that if you were to somehow remove the revenues of oil, the Muslim world would be in pretty bad shape. And the Muslims know it.

The question is the process of revival within Islam. The Islamic radicals are in the forefront of saying that the way to do this ultimately is to repel the forces of the bad guys who are coming to our society, installing secular dictators in our world, undermining our religion, undermining the Muslim family and corrupting the innocence of Muslim children. The radical Muslims have become very successful in multiplying their ranks because they are touching on something that is of genuine importance: we want not only to live in a prosperous society and in a powerful and strong country, but we also want to live the good life, the decent life, according to certain moral codes.

Concerns about the US

In other societies, our destiny is shaped to some degree by who we are, what religion we belong to, what tribe we belong to, what caste we belong to, whether we are the oldest son in the family, and so on. In America, those barriers are cut loose, so there’s a great appeal to America, I think. This shows why young people all over the world are fascinated by what America represents.

But Lee Kuan Yew’s point was that there is another America that is making the whole world a little nervous, and that is an America in which the idea of being able to do what you want has come to be interpreted as permissiveness, license or immorality—doing whatever you damn well please. In other words, freedom without accountability. This America endangers the traditional values that most of the world lives by.

The issue isn’t religion; it is the way in which religion has provided a kind of a social cement in forming societies. Culture is a product of religion. Western civilization threatens to unloose forces that overturn traditional values.

Contrasting ideas of freedom

Now here’s the interesting point: when we talk about America and the West, two ideas of freedom are competing. There is a moral order in the universe, the American founders believed, a moral order that makes claims on us, and it’s our job to live up to the dictates of this external moral code. This is the traditional view that freedom is very important, because with freedom you’re able to take advantage of opportunity and make the kind of life that you want for yourself.

There’s a new idea of freedom that developed in America. If you came as an immigrant to America in 1910 and you went to the neighborhood called Greenwich Village in New York City, you would encounter something called “bohemia.” People there were living against the mainstream of society. They said, “We reject this traditional way of living; we want to live in a more experimental way.” It was confined to intellectuals, artists, poets, painters; it was not a mainstream phenomenon.

One of the unnoticed legacies of the 1960s was to take these counter-cultural values and make them mainstream. Hollywood, for example, was really very permissive, even in the 1930s, but Hollywood today is a lot closer to America than it was then. In other words, many counter-cultural values have gone mainstream.

So we have a new morality that says: I should not live by consulting any external code; all those codes are outdated. They don’t apply to me. I should live by consulting my inner self. So, if I have a decision to make, such as whether to go to business school or become an artist, I decide not by any external calculation but by looking to this inner self.

It’s not a rejection of morality completely. It’s a transposition of morality from the idea of an external standard to this notion of inner morality. This means that there is no shared morality. Morality is subjective; it is personal.

The traditional Muslims are the majority of people in the Muslim world. They’re not that different from traditional Jews or traditional Christians. In fact, there is a kind of cousin relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam—each later faith claiming to incorporate elements of the one that came before. That creates a certain internal zone of respect. But what is new is that the radical Muslims are going to the traditional Muslims and saying: “Look, this West that we’re dealing with is really not a Christian society, not worthy of the traditional respect that the Qur’an extends toward Judaism and Christianity. This West is now a pagan society. It has gone through Christianity and come out on the other end. It is now a secular, atheist society. More than that, it is now the enemy of religion and moral values, and it is coming to your part of the world to threaten your values.”

This gives the ordinary Muslim a much stronger motive for a kind of jihad than any foreign policy issue.

Working for a better America

Those of us who are in the US need to work for a better America here at home, not just for reasons of foreign policy but because ultimately there’s a big fight in this country about what kind of America we want.

When you have a nine-year-old daughter, you find yourself constantly shielding her eyes from ugly or immoral things that are out there. You can’t really turn them off, because they are so pervasive in the culture. So you can understand why these things taken abroad are going to have this kind of impact.

The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a remarkable accomplishment because people of very different religious traditions, which make very different claims about the universe, can agree on a certain set of moral norms. The idea of rights can be understood as nothing more than a translation of the idea of morality into the political sphere. Our challenge is to recover some of that moral basis to advance peace in the world.


Dinesh D’Souza is author of The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11.