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“Bombing Without Moonlight” II: Background 18 December 2005

Posted by ABD in ABD, Philosophy, Politics, Reviews.

This is a brief sketch of the philosophical background to Sidi Abdal-Hakim Murad’s Oct 2004 article, “Bombing Without Moonlight”, with a few suggestions for further reading. The original article can be read here, and I did a summary and outline in an earlier post. My own comments and questions will inshaAllah follow in a third and final post on this article.


Abdal-Hakim Murad (aka Tim Winter) recasts the debate about Islam and violence as a conversation between the children (liberals) and different stepchildren (neoconservative as well as Muslim radicals) of the European Enlightenment. This is a complex argument and requires some background in the history of Western philosophy. As contested as this history is, my notes are necessarily an act of interpretation. For the sake of simplicity, I also leave out the impact of Judaism, Islam, the Renaissance and postmodernism (Islam and postmodernism are the more egregious oversights, and I may have to come back to them depending on feedback).

The Western philosophical tradition has been punctuated by three defining moments. Socrates is often taken as the starting point of Western philosophy; his student Plato and Plato’s student Aristotle are definitive of the classical period. Christianity injects something fundamentally new to this tradition. A synthesis of Christian and classical thought is definitive of the premodern (i.e., classical + medieval) period. The Enlightenment rejects both premodern philosophy and religion, and is definitive of the modern period. Insofar as philosophy is a conversation about possibilities, these are not simply historical periods that succeed each other, but can be seen as alternative paradigms that have been more or less compelling at different points in time.

The Enlightenment sets science in opposition to religion and other structures of traditional authority, and seeks to establish society on entirely rational foundations. Universal reason replaces myth, faith, custom et al. Contemporary liberals are the inheritors of this political project. Individual agency is central: the greater the realm of individual freedoms and the greater the equality between individuals, the better a society we have.

Critics of the Enlightenment have taken different forms: political and social conservatives, theologians, Marxists, feminists and others. Depending on the critic, liberalism is either too much or not enough of a good thing. Some of these critics are in fact beneficiaries of the Enlightenment—hence the idea of the Enlightenment’s stepchildren.

What does this have to do with the ethics of suicide militancy? If you are interested in figuring out what sort of thinking produces suicide militancy, it may be sufficient to look at whom suicide bombers read at night, whom those thinkers read and so on. AH Murad does some of that in his article. But if you are also interested in what sort of thinking makes it possible, and furthermore what sort of thinking can effectively combat it, then you need to look at the wider history of philosophy. From this perspective, the following narrative may be instructive:

Socratic philosophy introduced a tension between the good and one’s own—i.e., what is good for my family, tribe or city vs. what is objectively good. Monotheism radicalized this tension by making us all accountable to a just God and not to our particular communities. The Enlightenment took this yet a step further by enshrining reason as the basis of community, while severing its link to divine accountability. Of course, if universal reason is thrown into doubt (either because the truth does not exist or because the official version of the truth marginalizes other points of view), you have neither custom nor faith to fall back on. That’s where we stand today.

Suggested Reading

AH Murad. “Faith in the Future: Islam after the Enlightenment” and “Unpacking Islam”

John Gray. Al-Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern
(discussed in AH Murad’s article)

Allan Bloom. The Closing of the American Mind
(a brilliant, provocative history and indictment of American liberalism)

Richard Rorty. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity
(a good introduction to the type of postmodernism Murad opposes)



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