The USA: A Moral Model for the World?

Introduction to USA:  A Moral Model for the World? by Dr. Robert Crane: The following is a brilliant piece by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas on my thesis that a major task of Crescent University, as a premier seat of higher learning in the United States, is to revive the best of classical America in conjunction with the best of classical Islam.

He poses my thesis as a question in his title, “The USA:  A Moral Model for the World.” Now is the perfect time to pose this question because the United States is regarded throughout the world as the premier rogue state, and this may be just the beginning.  I have always loved nearly impossible tasks, like returning America to the highest vision of its founders.  As Shakespeare would say, “To be, or not to be? That is the question.”

Enlightened controversy is the best form of public relations because indifference, not hostility, spells the death of every good project.  An inspiring debate is the essence of good pedagogy, which Crescent, in sha’a Allah, may help revive so that Muslims can again develop a global hadara al islamiya or functionally Islamic civilization.  We Muslims blew it a few centuries ago, and America is blowing it now, so we may not get a second chance.

Br. Jeremy’s reply to the Crescent University material is just about the most brilliant thinking and writing that I have ever seen.  I agree completely with everything he has said.  I fear that America, and perhaps the entire Western world, may be on the way down the tubes.  America’s traditionalist heritage, which really started in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, not at the Boston Tea Party, is being swamped by an alliance of secularism (in the sense of hostility to religion) and evangelical fundamentalism (in the sense of President George Bush), which seems to be bent on imposing a world order based on fear (instead of love) and the utopian search for a stability of the status quo (instead of justice).  Read and enjoy!

As an educator involved in the pressing task of trying to bring to light an authentic and universal Islamic perspective in harmony with contemporary educational needs (through the Education Project of the Book Foundation), I was inspired by the vision for Crescent University expressed in Dr. Robert D. Crane’s article in the last issue of the American Muslim Network.

I hope that I shall make clear, in due course, how the universal dimension of Crescent’s vision is very much in harmony with our own, but I would also like to make some observations from the other side of the Atlantic on the ambition pursued by Crescent University to uphold the “traditionalist framework” of American thought, and to fulfil the conviction held by America’s founders that it is “America’s destiny to become a moral model for the world”.

I hope these comments will be seen as pertinent and constructive, offered as they are by someone who shares essentially common educational goals even if, as an Englishman, I am less secure in my knowledge of the principles espoused by America’s founders and more skeptical about the ability of present-day America to provide the “moral model” they envisioned.

The vision and essential aims of Crescent University accord closely with the vision and mission of the Book Foundation Education Project.

For example, the emphasis on “intellectual integrity in reviving the perennial values of the world’s civilizations”, and the “common paradigm of wisdom” represented by the “Great Books of all civilizations” accord with two of the stated objects of the Book Foundation:

“To create a bridge of mutual respect and reconciliation between the diverse cultural and religious expressions of our universal human heritage through an understanding of the contribution of all human civilizations, cultural and religious traditions to the development of mankind” and


“To cultivate an understanding of the unity and complementarity of all branches of human knowledge in the light of the comprehensive and inclusive knowledge and wisdom given to mankind through divine revelation”.

Crescent University’s emphasis on “spiritual maturity, moral virtue and strength of character”, the “integration of academic excellence and spiritual awareness within a caring community” and the “awareness of the transcendent source of ultimate purpose and meaning” are in total harmony too with the mission and vision of our education project.  We aim to develop a holistic system of education which “awakens and develops innately positive human capacities”, including the dormant attributes of our fitrah, combining “spiritual awareness and human excellence”.  This entails the “balanced development of human potential in every sphere of knowledge, behavior and endeavor—spiritual, moral, imaginative, intellectual, social, aesthetic, emotional and physical”.

The core educational programs we are now developing address these aims and further information about them will be available in an introductory article about The Book Foundation in the August issue of The American Muslim.  Information on our website, which is currently being upgraded, will also be provided in the next issue.

Turning now to the ambition of Crescent to fulfil the conviction of the founding fathers that it is “America’s destiny to become a moral model for the world”, I would like to refer to some words of Gerald Elmore, a post-doctoral fellow at Yale and a distinguished scholar of the Shaykh al-Akbar, Ibn ‘Arabi, these words were the concluding remarks of a paper he presented at the annual symposium of the Ibn ‘‘Arabi Society, this year entitled “The Service of Love”, held in May at Worcester College, Oxford, England.

Dr. Elmore posed the question, “Why, given the historical failure of Christian evangelism, did Islam fail to civilize the world?” And his answer, which initially surprised me, was that this failure was a failure of love.  It surprised me because I had expected him to say that this failure to “civilize the world” could be laid at the door of a weakened intelligence, or a loss of the spirit of open enquiry, or the precedence given to the law over the spirit, or those other manifestations of a closed, rigid and exclusive outlook.

But, then I saw that he was right; that, of course, all these limitations we customarily associate with the crisis in the Muslim world can indeed be subsumed under the umbrella of a “failure of love”.  To close down and to shut off, to retreat and to refuse to engage, to set what we believe in stone without any provision for renewal or reformulation in fresh language and in the light of contemporary needs, is essentially a constriction of the heart, for the awakened heart (qalb) is the one faculty, above all, that gives us space.  In the words of the hadith qudsi, “Neither My heavens nor my earth encompass Me, but the Heart of My servant with faith does encompass Me”.  What drew me to Islam, as I know it has drawn other converts too, is what lies at its heart, its fragrance and its vast spaciousness, its capacity to encompass, never to constrict.  And that expansiveness is a quality of love.

Now, how does this illuminating diagnosis offered by Gerald Elmore apply to the ambition of Crescent University to realize the conviction of the founding fathers that America is destined to be the “moral model for the world”?  I suggest that all we have to do is to rephrase the question posed by Elmore and to ask: “Why do so many people believe that America, despite all the rhetoric about its mission in upholding ‘civilized values’, is actually unfit, at least in its present state, to be such a moral model for the world?”

And I would give the same answer that Gerald Elmore gave to his original question.  I would say that it is a failure of love which disqualifies America, in its present state, from assuming such a role even it were indeed such a simple matter of attributing to one nation alone, no matter how powerful, such a task of moral leadership.

And when I say a “failure of love”, I do not, of course, mean that there are not people of heart in America and people of expansive vision (for the awakened heart is also the seeing heart, the organ of basirah), any more than Elmore implied that all Muslims were implicated in the failure of Islam to civilize the world, or any more than I would dare to suggest that all British people are party to the way their government has supported, without qualification, what President Bush, in a recent amplification of bombast, has called the titanic war on terrorism.  We all know what happened to the Titanic.  It sank beneath the waves.  We need to ask what lessons we can draw from the arrogance of titanic claims, whether of unsinkability, state-of-the-art technological prowess, “full-spectrum dominance”, “infinite justice”, or any of the other hyperboles we are hearing all too often.

In Greek mythology, the Titans were originally a gigantic race who inhabited the earth before the creation of man, and amongst them it is, perhaps, the ambivalent figure of Prometheus who has captured our imagination more than any other.  Prometheus incurred the wrath of Zeus by stealing fire for the benefit of mankind, for which transgression he was chained to a rock on Mount Caucasus where a vulture preyed upon his liver, which was renewed as fast as it was devoured.

To the Romantic poets, Prometheus was a heroic friend of mankind, as he also was to Beethoven, a musical champion of liberty and the indomitable human spirit (Byron’s “impenetrable spirit”) in the face of tyranny.  Beethoven even wrote a “Prometheus” Overture.  To the Romantics, Prometheus was not only the benefactor of mankind, whose gift of the use of fire had brought civilization and the arts, but also a symbol of the magnanimous endurance of unmerited suffering and strength of will resisting oppression.

But there is another view of Prometheus, not colored by the particular historical conditions that favored a romantic idealization of the Titan.  This view is represented in its most comprehensive and articulate form in the writings of Seyyed Hossein Nasr.  For Nasr, Prometheus represents the self-aggrandizement of the earthly creature who rebels against Heaven and misappropriates the role of Divinity for himself.  He contrasts “Promethean man” with “Pontifical man”, the “pontiff, pontifex, or bridge between Heaven and earth, which is the traditional view of the anthropos…the vicegerent of God (khalifatallah) on earth…the custodian and protector of the earth of which he is given dominion on the condition that…he remains aware of the transient nature of his own journey on earth.”

In contrast, “Promethean man…is a creature of the world.  He feels at home on earth, earth not considered as the virgin nature which is itself an echo of paradise, but as the artificial world created by Promethean man himself in order to make it possible for him to forget God and his own inner reality.”  Nasr regards the “titanesque” statues of Michaelangelo as “crushing” to the traditional Muslim sensibility because they offend “that sense of submission to God created in his soul by Islamic spirituality and his horror of human self-aggrandizement at the expense of the Divine Presence.”

This self-aggrandizement, what Durand has called the “disfiguration of the image of man in the West” is evident as much in the current ecological crisis (the onslaughts of Promethean man on virgin nature) as it is in many of the uses to which Prometheus applied his theft of fire supposedly for the benefit of mankind, notably the manufacture of weapons (originally to subdue animals) and the coining of money.  The gift of civilization and the arts idealized by the Romantics is based on thetechnological uses of fire.  The Promethean mentality compounds its misappropriation of divine power through the worship and misuse of technology, and, of course, the key role of technology in the “titanic war against terrorism” which attributes to itself even the Names of God.

These Names include Al- Cadl, Infinite Justice, and an array of Names misappropriated by the phrase “full-spectrum dominance”:  The Greatest in All Realms (Al-Azim), The Most Victorious (Al-Aziz),The Absolute Ruler (Al-Malik), The Most Powerful (Al-Qadir), The Mighty (Al-Jalil), The Possessor of all Strength (Al-Qawi), The One Supreme in Pride and Greatness (Al-Mutakabbir), The Dominating One (Al-Qahhar) and The Compeller (Al-Jabbar). We have also seen the misappropriation of the Name of The Great Avenger (Al-Muntaqim) and the Name of the All-Seeing (Al-Basir) in the presumption of comprehensive surveillance of the earth by remote sensing from spy satellites.

The Qur’an warns us again and again in verse after verse of what has befallen great empires which attributed to themselves the ultimate supremacy which belongs to God alone:  Have they, then, never journeyed about the earth and beheld what happened in the end to those who lived before their time?  Greater were they in power than they are, and in the impact which they left on earth:  but God took them to task……(Q.40:21).

Every citizen is not implicated in the blindness, arrogance or hardness of heart of those who walk the corridors of power, even though every citizen in a democratic state has a right and a duty to speak out against the abuse of that power which is entrusted to those who wield it in his or her name, and to proclaim loud and clear that what they do is “not in my name”.  As the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Anyone of you who sees wrong, let him undo it with his hand; and if he cannot, then let him speak against it with his tongue, and if he cannot do this either, then let him abhor it with his heart, and this is the least of faith.”

If Crescent University can begin to re-awaken the vision of the founding fathers as a means of contributing to a new world order based on the traditionalist framework it espouses, so much the better, and no doubt this entails the “mutually interdependent and reinforcing principles of order, justice and freedom”, as Robert Crane explains.  Even then, this will, as I say, be a valued contribution, not a monopoly of the moral high ground, not the assumption of superiority.  As Simon Schama, the British historian and broadcaster, showed us this week in the latest episode of his influential television series on the History of Britain, it was the assumption of superiority (whether racial, intellectual, moral or military) which sowed the seeds of the downfall of the British Empire, and doubtless the downfall of other empires too.

On what evidence do I base my own diagnosis of the malaise that subverts the vision of the founding fathers?

You may well ask:  what do I, as an Englishman, know of this vision?  Although I studied history to an advanced level at school, within a traditional English educational system that has traditionally taught world history in much greater depth than in the American public school system, I never studied American history beyond the context provided by British and European history.  The American War of Independence was, thus, one of many wars fought by the British (and uncharacteristically lost!) in the 18th Century.  We studied its causes, including the infamous tax which led to the Boston Tea Party, and understood its significance in the British context of the gradual ascendancy of a fully democratic system of government and the successive checks and limitations on the power of autocratic monarchs, starting in 1215 with the Magna Carta and culminating in the constitutional monarchy we have today.

We need to recall that the English parliamentarians executed the autocratic King Charles the First (who tried to raise direct taxes on the English people without the consent of parliament) in 1649, over a hundred years before the American Revolution.  In more recent times, this long tradition of resistance to unfair taxation caused the downfall of Margaret Thatcher, whose attempt to impose a standard poll tax on the British people (irrespective of their means) was an act of self-destruction and clear evidence that she had singularly failed to learn the most rudimentary lesson of British history.

Needless to say, my understanding of the true history of the American Revolution was not enhanced by seeing Mel Gibson in The Patriot, with its silly caricatures of English redcoat officers as uniformly odious, wicked, sadistic, snuff-sniffing, supercilious, caustically witty oppressors, although I guess that this kind of formulaic stereotyping plays neatly into the hands of those who have their own agenda in promoting the infantile us-and-them, either-you’re-with-us-or-against-us, black-and-white, axis-of-evil, good-and-bad-guys, mentality.

We should never underestimate the power of movies in a country where most of the people learn their history (and create their heroes) from movies, even if it is a history which bears little resemblance to what actually happened.  Let us have myths, by all means, and there is no doubt that movies are important carriers of modern myths, but let’s not confuse the myths with history even if it’s hard to avoid the fact all nations have their own version of history which reflects its own national perspective.

The most telling example of this that I know of is the dating of the beginning of “modern” history in the Eurocentric curriculum that I was taught at school. This magic date is 1492, the year of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus.  Looking back now, I am aghast that I was not taught that this was also the date of the fall of Granada, and the ascendancy of the Catholic monarchs which saw the expulsion (or forced assimilation) of the Jews and Muslims from Spain, and the triumph of an oppressive mono-culturalism over the convivencia represented by one of the most refined, pluralistic civilizations ever achieved in the history of mankind.

My understanding of an authentically American vision has perhaps been most notably enhanced by an unprecedented exhibition of works by nineteenth-century masters of American landscape painting such as Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and Albert Bierstadt, at the Tate Britain in London earlier this year.  Entitled “American Sublime”, the exhibition so astounded me that I traveled to London on three separate occasions to see it.  Never have I seen such awesome and sublime landscapes that embodied the transcendentalist view of nature of such writers as Emerson and Ruskin. In Ruskin’‘s words, to observe nature closely was to “follow the finger of God”.  In seeing this exhibition, I began to understand something of the pristine spiritual quality (and its sense of vast spaciousness) which informed such a vision of nature, although I am not able to say whether this was an aspect of the vision of the founding fathers.

So, given my own lack of detailed education about the traditionalist framework of American thought, I’ll be guided by Robert Crane’s statement that it entails the “mutually interdependent and reinforcing principles of order, justice and freedom; that freedom independent of justice is the root of anarchy; that order without justice undermines order because injustice is the principal case of disorder; and that justice without order and freedom is the mark of the totalitarian mind.

Let’s take a look at the relationship between justice and order from a linguistic perspective.  The idea of ‘‘fairness’’ is embedded in the English concept of good character.  It is a hallowed virtue that extends from the law courts to the sports field.  The English adjective ‘‘fair’’ has two meanings:  the first is ‘‘just, equitable, reasonable, non-partial’’ and the second is ‘‘beautiful’‘.  But the meaning of its original Germanic root is ‘‘fitting’‘, that which is the right size, in the correct ratio or proportion.  The range of meanings of this word ‘‘fair’’ reflect a truly Islamic concept, the idea that to be just is to “do what is beautiful” (ihsan), to act in accordance with our original nature (fitra), which God has shaped in “just proportions” (Qur’‘an 82:7) as a “fitting” reflection of divine order and harmony.  Indeed, “Everything have We created in due measure and proportion” (Qur’‘an 54:49).  So, a fair and just society is a beautiful society, and, in the words of a famous hadith, “God is Beauty and delights in the beautiful.”

At this point I have to say that it is important not to fall into the jingoistic trap of equating particular virtues with national identities.  Fair play is not a monopoly of the English, any more than a love of freedom is a monopoly of Americans.  Fairness and a love of liberty are innate human predispositions that have exemplars in every culture.

The semantic field encompassed by the English word “fair,” which connects justice with the idea of proportion and beauty, has clear correspondences with the Arabic cadl, whose root CDL has the sense of proportion and symmetry as well as justice and equity. We need to look for such equivalences in order to discover the common underlying language represented by universal semantic fields.  We must always come back to the single coin of the innate disposition of the human being, and not be tempted into invidious comparisons designed to promote the self-image of particular nations and communities at the expense of others.

So, in both the English word ‘‘fair’’ and the Arabic world cadl there is a clear connection between justice, order and proportion.  Order, in its original meaning derived from Latin ordo, is concerned with ‘‘regular arrangement’‘, with principles of symmetry and “due measure and proportion”.  Proportion is, par excellence, the governing principle of beauty, embodied objectively in the golden (or divine) ratio which imparts such a pleasing and harmonious quality to works of art and architecture.

The concept of ‘‘order’’ also extends to the idea of ‘‘order by rank’‘, where ‘‘rank’’ originally referred to a ‘‘row’’ (an example of ‘‘regular arrangement’‘), but came to mean ‘‘rank in seniority’‘.  This relates directly to the semantic field encompassed by the Arabic word adab, which, as Syed Muhammad Naguib al-Attas has explained, essentially means knowing your position, or proper place, in the human order, whether in relation to your family or your community, or, indeed, to your own self, because in the fully developed human being, as khalifah, there is also a proper arrangement in the elements of the psyche, so that they are in just ratio one to another.  In this state of order, the adab of the lower animal soul (al-nafs al-hayawaniyyah), for example, is to recognize and acknowledge its subordinate status in relation to the higher rational soul (al-nafs al-natiqah).  In simpler terms, we keep our lower self in check if we want to be fully human.

Later, the word adab was reduced to a context revolving around cultural refinement and social etiquette, but in its core Islamic sense, the notion of adab is extended to encompass the fulfilment of the covenant (mithaq) we made with God when we recognized and acknowledged God as our Lord (al-Rabb).  This is the highest form of deference to lordship, our servanthood to al-Rabb.  Below this, our relationship with other human beings is based on an order of hierarchical arrangement in degrees of excellence based on Qur’‘anic criteria of intelligence, knowledge and virtue (ihsan), where “intelligence” is not, of course, the overvalued faculty measured by IQ tests (whether verbal, numerical or spatial), but the faculty of caql, which, in its highest sense is, as Titus Burckhardt explains, “the universal principle of all intelligence, a principle which transcends the limiting conditions of the mind” and is therefore closely related to both spirit (ruh) and heart (qalb).

There is a scene in Shakespeare’s Macbeth when the blood-spattered spectre of Banquo, recently murdered at Macbeth’s behest, invades the meeting hall where Macbeth is in council with his nobles and sits in the vacant place which had been allotted to him. Overwhelmed with horror, and increasingly deranged by the presence of the ghost which none of the others can see, Macbeth instructs his nobles to leave, and to “stand not upon the order of your going”.  By this he means that they should leave immediately in any order and not according to any precedence of lineage, rank or protocol.  The breakdown of adab here mirrors the inversion of the natural order created by Macbeth’s unnatural act of murdering in his own house a saintly King, who was also his kinsman and benefactor.

If justice, order, proportion and beauty are so intertwined, we have to ask what evidence or counter-evidence we see of such an intersection of qualities in any nation which claims to be, or aspires to be, a “moral model for the world”.

Let us take simply the idea of proportion, and let me refer without prejudice to some topical facts and figures.

Why did the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development in Bali effectively collapse? The Bush administration blocked the provision of the most basic amenities for the most deprived people on the planet, and rejected any new targets for reducing world poverty, effectively refusing to negotiate.  It blocked plans to halve the number of the world’s people without any sanitation—a situation which causes a child to die every 10 seconds from water-borne diseases.  It also blocked plans to double the number of those who have electricity and other forms of energy.  At present, 2.4 billion people in the world lack even a bucket for their wastes.

At the recent UN World Food Summit in Rome, the U.S. opposed at the outset the clause that stated “everyone had the right to safe and nutritious food”.  At the first World Food Summit in 1996, leaders from 185 nations undertook to halve the number of hungry people in the world—then at 841 million.  The number now stands at 815 million.

The WHO plan to save the lives of 8 million people a year would require an increase in spending on health in poorer countries of about $50 billion a year, about the same as the planned increase in the US defense budget in 2003.  Every year $80 billion is spent in the USA on obesity-related health problems, which also cause 300,000 deaths in the USA every year.  One in five men in the USA is obese, and one in four women.  Americans lead the world in daily per capita consumption of calories.  In contrast, 2.8 billion people, or half the population of the world, live on less than $2 a day.

Measured by the internationally accepted OECD standard, the $10 billion of foreign aid given by the USA is just 0.1% of GDP, compared with the European Union average of 0.3%, which is also woefully inadequate.  The bulk of the U.S. “aid” is not directed to the poorest countries, but to relatively prosperous strategic allies.  Israel and Egypt will receive three times the aid America gives to all sub-Saharan Africa, where the current severe drought (brought about partly by climate changed induced by the smoke stacks of America) is likely to cause starvation on a vast scale.  Children in Burkina Faso are searching dry riverbeds for waterlily bulbs to eat.

In March of this year President Bush announced an additional $5 billion aid to poorer countries, acknowledging what was obvious to any thinking person since 11th September that terrorism will not be eradicated until the poverty which helps to generate it is ameliorated.  This extra $5 billion (to be allocated over three years) is less than 0.1% of total government spending of $2,128 billion for fiscal 2003.  The Pentagon alone will scoop up $379 billion, more than the 25 next largest national defense budgets combined. The $5 billion adds up to barely a tenth of the latest annual increase in defense spending.  It would buy the USS Ronald Reagan, the ninth Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, due to be launched next year, but not the 85 F-15s and F-18s needed to fill its decks. These would cost another $2 billion.

It needs little analysis to figure out that there is something grossly out of proportion in this situation, and that this ugly imbalance is at once a breach of justice and a cause of disorder.

The Qur’anic vision is all we need. “Everything have We created in due measure and proportion”, so whatever is disproportionate and out of measure is a breach of divine law.  This applies to disproportionate consumption (America not only leads the world in per capita consumption of calories, but also in natural gas and oil), disproportionate self-interest, disproportionate use of military power, and disproportionate self-aggrandizement in the blasphemous attribution of Names of God to the Pentagon, the ultimate breach of adab, a complete inversion of the proper order of things.  We could add to this list of violations of proportion the disproportionate fear, self-protection and obsession with security which seem to be a growing feature of American life and which paradoxically are not allayed at all by such vast temporal power.

If, as Robert Crane says, the founding fathers’ vision of moral leadership is based on “mutually interdependent and reinforcing principles of order, justice and freedom”, then a new brand of leader needs to be nurtured by Crescent University.  Such leaders need to restore these mutually interdependent principles to the American people, for without them, there can be no moral leadership.  And we all desperately need such leaders, not only in the USA, but in Britain too, where our own leaders seem content to act as sidekicks to the Bush administration.

And what of freedom, the third principle integral to the founding father’s vision?  It has been perplexing to us from across the Atlantic to see a nation, which prides itself as a nation of “freedom-lovers”, in the grip of a concerted attack on civil liberties.  We heard much in the early days after September 11thabout the silencing of dissident voices and the effective outlawing of freedom of speech, even if this was often in the form of self-censorship.  Fergal Keane, a respected journalist who writes for the UK Independent newspaper, visited the USA in January and reported “not so much an absence of dissent as an almost total prohibition on questioning……The few who do stick their heads above the parapet are shouted down with unprecedented ferocity.”  He encountered a “vituperative jock’’ journalism that mocks concerns about human rights and acts as a cheerleader for the White House.

Keane points out that “America has been down this road before.  The existential threat posed by the rebellion of the Confederacy in 1860 enabled Abraham Lincoln to suspend habeas corpus; the Second World War saw the internment of Japanese Americans, under the most liberal president in American history; and the Cold War era unleashed the witch-hunts of McCarthyism.  The First Amendment may guarantee freedom of speech, but it is no protection against an atmosphere that makes traitors of the independent-minded.  As Thomas Jefferson was only too well aware when the Bill of Rights was drafted, the will of the majority must be subjected to checks and balances if an elective dictatorship is to be avoided.

The new USA Patriot Act, as far as I understand it, gives unconstitutional powers of arrest and indefinite detention without trial of those merely suspected of involvement, or intended involvement, in terrorist activities under draconian secret evidence laws that restrict even lawyers from access to evidence.  It also gives U.S. law enforcement agencies the authority to violate attorney-client privilege through surveillance and eavesdropping, with no judicial safeguards.

Stephen Jakobi, the Director of Fair Trials Abroad, said in February that the “reputation of American justice is hanging by a thread”.  In the traditionalist framework of American thought, in Robert Crane’‘s terms, justice without order and freedom is the mark of the totalitarian mind and cannot be the basis of moral leadership.

What of freedom in the wider world? I was astonished to learn that America leads the field in the number of international human rights treaties not signed and is the only country in the UN with a legally constituted government which has failed to ratify the UN convention on the Rights of the Child.

Of course, we know that the record of the contemporary Muslim world in human rights is in many respects a dismal one.  I am sure that most American Muslims, like most British Muslims, prefer to live under their systems of liberal democracy, concerned, as they are, not about the obvious benefits of liberty but about the negative consequences of libertinism.

Hopefully, we can all understand the difference between liberty and libertinism, in the same way as we need to be careful not to equate nihilistic relativism with relativity, or every attempt to find relationship or use context to inform meaning.  In the same way, we need to distinguish between absolutism as an unbending frame of mind and the absolute and the immutable truths given to us through divine revelation.  Such distinctions can be carried further to encompass the difference between individualism and individuality, between communalism and community, between scientism and true science, between modernism and modernity, between fundamentalism and a commitment to fundamentals, and between secularism as a godless ideology and the intelligent appreciation that we live in the “present time” (Latin saeculum) and therefore need to attune ourselves to its particular needs, conditions and ways of thinking if we are ever going to be able communicate effectively with the contemporary psyche.

What I have written in this essay is not intended to be a carping critique of America from a skeptical cousin across the Atlantic, but some candid thoughts from an English brother who shares with you and bridges two common traditions:  that of the Anglo-Saxon world, and that of Islam.  I believe passionately that between these two traditions there is no inherent clash, but, on the contrary, there is an underlying convergence of civilizing principles, and most especially in the idea of the Middle Way, as has been shown with such breadth of knowledge in the fascinating study Islam East and West by ex-President ‘‘Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

My impression is that the voices that need to play a strong part in the renewal of the vision of the founding fathers within the “common paradigm” espoused by such institutions as Crescent University are now being raised with greater confidence in your land.  It is these voices that, if heard, will begin to re-establish the “moral model” we associate with the traditionalist framework of the best of American thought, and begin to produce leaders who can contribute to the establishment of a new world order based on the “due measure and proportion” that is the natural and divinely ordained condition in which we should all live.  An example is the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and I can think of nothing better for my purposes than to refer to an article by Carol Bragg (Martin Luther King’s “Axis of Evil”) which, at the time of writing, is on their website, www.forusa.org

Carol Bragg reminds us of Dr. King’s blunt warning that there is a “fierce urgency, now” to address poverty, racism and militarism and that “over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘‘Too late’‘.  The conclusion of her article sets out the “dramatically different worldviews and agendas” represented by “President Bush and Dr. King:

“Two visions”:  one of a self-interested and supremacist nation that is “second to none”; the other of a “World House in which all are interdependent”.

“Two axes of evil—one of “rogue” states that threaten the world [and especially threaten Americans] with weapons of mass destruction; the other of racism, poverty, and militarism that mire people in misery, divide us against each other, and threaten the world with extinction.”

“Two strategies for ridding the world of evil—one by military action, overthrowing brutal regimes, ever-more sophisticated weaponry, “impenetrable” defense systems; the other by addressing racial and cultural tensions, committing unconditionally to free the world of the scourge of poverty, and developing the capacity for non-violent intervention in international conflicts.

“Two sets of motivating forces to carry out the strategies—one based on fear and hatred and the need for power; the other on faith and compassion and the quest for justice, values shared by the world’‘s great religions.”

The “moral model for the world” which Crescent University seeks to re-establish must surely be based on the worldview of leaders such as Dr. King, which is completely in harmony with the message of the Qur’an.  And it is actually more than a “moral” model ; it is a message of love, a means of addressing the failure of love I referred to in my earlier extrapolation of Gerald Elmore’‘s remarks, and why America, in its present state, cannot assume moral leadership.

As I was drawing this paper to a conclusion this morning, a timely coincidence has provided me with its closing lines.  I received an e-mail from the Wisdom Fund forwarding to me an article published in the Guardian on 14 June.  It is entitled “We Won’t Deny Our Consciences” and is a statement by prominent Americans, on the “war against terror”, and highlights many of the issues I have raised in this paper, including the responsibility of people of conscience to take responsibility for the injustices which their governments do in their name.  These injustices include the violation of the rights of due process for those detained without trial, the “pall of repression” which attacked, distorted and silenced the views of dissidents and intellectuals, and the “war and repression that has been loosed on the world by the Bush administration.”  Its signatories include Martin Luther King III and many writers, historians, creative artists, and leaders of faith communities.  It was a direct answer to what I had just been writing about the need for people of conscience to raise their voices so as to renew the vision of the founding fathers within the “common paradigm of wisdom” espoused by such institutions as Crescent University.

I would like to quote the whole statement, but I am assuming that it has already been well publicized in America, so an extract will suffice:  “There is a deadly trajectory of the events of the past months that must be seen for what it is and resisted.  Too many times in history people have waited until it was too late to resist.  President Bush has declared : “You’re either with us or against us.”  Here is our answer:  We refuse to allow you to speak for all the American people.  We will not give up our right to question.  We will not hand over our consciences in return for a hollow promise of safety.  We say not in our name.  We refuse to be party to these wars and we repudiate any inference that they are being waged in our name or for our welfare…Let us not allow the watching world to despair of our silence and our failure to act.”

A world which is watching and waiting and despairing of the silence of America and its failure to act in accordance with its highest ideals is a world which believes that America is very far from renewing the “moral model” espoused by the founding fathers.  If Crescent University can renew their vision, and awaken too the spaciousness and civilizing power of love, which includes, in the words of their own vision statement, the capacity to “live generously” and with “sensitivity with others”, then it will play a major part in the education of the kind of leaders the world so desperately needs.  May God guide its founders, teachers and students in this endeavor.

© Jeremy Henzell-Thomas, 17 June 2002

The American Muslim does not claim primary copyright on the source material. Reprinted in The American Muslim with permission. If you wish to reprint the entire article, you must obtain permission of the copyright holder

 

 

 


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