Muslim Extremists, Nixon, and Historical Revisionism

In the run-up to the 2004 elections, some Republicans seem to be revising history in order to co-opt former presidents into support of current foreign policy by demonizing Islam.  A classic example may be the Boca Raton Republican Club, which is holding a “Support America Rally” on April 10th, 2003, in order support President Bush and American troops in Iraq.  In preparation for this rally, the Club hosted Bill McCollum, a former Orlando area congressman who is a candidate for the U.S. senate seat held by Democrat Bob Graham.  During discussion of the war in Iraq and its follow-up, McCollum described a three-hour meeting that he had with Nixon in 1990.  He says that in this meeting Nixon warned “that America’s next big threat would come from Muslim extremists.”

Richard Nixon very probably did make this statement in 1990 about the threat of Muslim extremists in the century ahead.  This fits in with all his thinking on the role of religion in human affairs.  He was always far-sighted in forecasting the nature of global dynamics after the end of the Communist threat, but he always distinguished between Islam and Muslims.  He recognized that the very word Islam means the sense of peace that comes from submission in loving awe (taqwa) to the ultimate, i.e. God, and from both personal and community recognition of the resulting responsibility to respect the human responsibilities and rights inherent in justice.  A Muslim, on the other hand, is only a person who claims either honestly or dishonestly that he submits to God rather than to such false gods as power, prestige, plutocracy, and hedonistic pleasure.

As Richard Nixon’s principal foreign policy adviser from 1963 to 1968, and as his personal adviser on the world religions, I can vouch for the fact that Nixon always separated every religion from its adherents.  We both viewed Islam as an ally of the United States against atheistic Communism, and I argued that it was the most powerful ally in the world. 

We both recognized that Muslims are just as susceptible as those of any other religion to pervert their religion’s enlightened teachings, and that the perversion of a powerful force can pose a correspondingly powerful threat to justice and peace and to the constructive role of religion in the world.  Nixon agreed with me that Communism was a heresy peculiar to and part of Westernized Christian civilization, just as I would argue that radical Muslim fundamentalism, which is a Westernized perversion of Islam, plays the same destructive role in the Muslim world today.

Some pundits at the time of Nixon’s above quoted statement, notably Francis Fukuyama of The End of History fame, believed that enlightened elites had triumphed and thereby eliminated all major threats in the world.  Nixon was a pragmatist and represented in his own personality both the best and the worst in human nature.  He was not a utopian, because he knew that the integrity of a person, a nation, and even an entire civilization is always fragile, which was why his idealism deserves attention.  Failure to recognize this fragility in oneself and others may be the greatest weakness of a very similar president, George W. Bush.

Nixon always respected Henry Kissinger’s expertise, though the feeling did not seem to be mutual, and he no doubt shared Kissinger’s view presented at the strategic summit on March 9-12th, 1992, at Nixon’s Yorba Linda Presidential Library that the greatest threat in the coming decade would not be nuclear proliferation, as CIA Director Robert Gates contended, but rather would be “religious fundamentalism.”  Background on this strategic debate may be found in the essay, entitled “Policy Paradigms: A Key to American Foreign Policy,” which I delivered on March 26th, 2003, at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce in Saudi Arabia during the first week of the third Gulf War.

In his last public writing on Islam, Nixon remarked in his book, Beyond Peace, published a few weeks before he died in April, 1994, that, “The twentieth century has been a period of conflict between the West and the Muslim world.  If we work together we can make the twenty-first century not just a time of peace … but a century in which, beyond peace, two great civilizations will enrich each other and the rest of the world.”

“With the end of the Cold War,” Nixon urged, “we must ask ourselves what we stand for in addition to national strength and prosperity.  Democracy and Capitalism are just techniques unless they are employed by those who seek a higher purpose for themselves and for society.”

“Today,” Nixon asserted in his last public message, “our enemy is within us.”  “The real threat in the world,” Nixon told his fellow Americans, lies in the fact that, “Our country may be rich in goods, but we are poor in spirit.  Poor-quality secondary education, rampant crime and violence, growing racial divisions, pervasive poverty, the drug epidemic, the degenerative culture of moronic entertainment, a decline in the notions of civic duty and responsibility, and the spread of a spiritual emptiness have all disconnected and alienated Americans from their country, their religions, and one another.  Our crisis of values at home, coupled with our lack of a coherent mission abroad, has created a ‘dark night of the soul’.”

This warning about the real threat in the world a decade ago may seem out-of-date today in the middle of a war against terrorism, but, in fact, the substance of this threat may underlie the failure of American foreign policy to address the injustices of the status quo and may help explain why the response to the tragic results of these injustices has been an almost paranoid unilateralization and militarization of America’s role in the world.  Some observers fear that the governing paradigm of foreign policy is the Orwellian “peace is war,” rather than “peace through justice.”  Peace indeed may sometimes require war, but usually only if injustices have already created the challenges that cannot be managed peacefully.

Perhaps the greatest threat to peace and prosperity in the world is represented by Henry Kissinger’s statement in January, 1993, that he had read Alija Izetbegovich’s book, Islam Between East and West, and concluded that it represents the purest form of the mounting Islamic threat to “Western civilization.”  Izetbegovich presented in this book a profound analysis of the strengths and weakness of both the West and the East (then Communism) and distinguished between the classical wisdom of all civilizations and the perversions by extremists in their midst.  Instead of a clash between civilizations, Izetbegovich saw that the real clash is between almost identical forces within each of them.  By presenting Western civilization as inherently secular, Kissinger not only distorted history, but was pushing Western civilization into a protracted conflict against human nature and against every other civilization until the end of time.  By demonizing Islam as a religion, he was equally demonizing Christianity and Judaism, because their enlightened teachings are identical, as was clearly evident in the writings of Alija Izetbegovich.

Nixon died as an optimist about the future because he saw that our opportunities “to discover a new sense of common purpose lie within ourselves.”  He welcomed the apparent resurgence of spiritual hunger in America, and he urged that “our hunger for something to believe in is a profoundly positive development that members of the leadership class should celebrate, not fear.”

He shared the consensus of what may be considered another strategic summit as portrayed in a special issue in 1994 of New Perspectives Quarterly, which is the house journal of one of America’s first and most influential think-tanks, The Center for the Study of Democracy.  In this special issue, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser in the White House, warned that the same fate suffered by Communism may be in store for the American dream.  He introduced what is still known as the Brzezinski Doctrine, which holds that “self-indulgent, hedonistic society cannot project a moral imperative onto the world,” and that any civilization that cannot offer moral leadership will die.  Even the militantly amoral Henry Kissinger recognized this, though in his cookbook the purpose of a moral imperative was not truth and morality as ultimate purposes but rather only the image of such morality as a tool in the pursuit of secular power.

The editor of New Perspectives Quarterly, Nathan Gardels, who is still shepherding the journal a decade later, introduced this special issue with an editorial, entitled “Soul of the World Order,” in which he suggests that the soul of Islam may soon become the soul of the twenty-first century, and may thereby be the only answer to the insoluable problems caused by the secularism of Western civilization.

He writes, “Perhaps the clash with [Islamic] piety will help produce in the West a post-scientific age which readmits the spiritual presence it once excommunicated?  Perhaps sheer exhaustion from the mad consumerist rush to an empty future will prompt a second look at the Islamic values of balance, equilibrium, and meditation?  Perhaps disintegrating cultures lacking authority and torn in a million directions by the individual pursuit of happiness will come to appreciate the virtues of [other civilizations].  The West enters the contest with the upper hand of the latest technology of the media.  Tough armed to the mindseye with CNNs and MTVs, one must wonder if a civilization where nothing is sacred can prevail over others where the sacred is all that matters.”