The West and the Rest
The West and the Rest

"To Be Read" Book Review Column: Roger Scruton, "The West and the Rest"

Oct 1, 2003

"The enemy is of two kinds: the tyrant dictator, and the religious fanatic whom the tyrant protects. To act against the first is feasible, if we are prepared to play by the tyrant’s rules. But to act against the second requires a credible alternative to the absolutes with which he conjures. It requires us not merely to believe in something, but to study how to put our beliefs into practice." (161)

These are the concluding words of this brief and curious book. Scruton contrasts the basic structure of Western political life with the Holy Law of Islam. Islam then becomes his paradigm for “the rest.” It is a nicely written book, seductive in its clarity, suspect in some of its conclusions.

The development of early Christianity within the context of Roman Law, says Scruton, lays down a pattern of church-state separation for the West: Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. Religion, in the West, is not completely separate from the state; it may teach that there are moral limits to what a state can do, but religion does not dominate all. The business of religion and the business of the state remain essentially distinct. The fruit of this separation is that strangers to one another, in religion or in custom, may live together peacefully under the secular rule of law. Though family, tribal custom, and religion persist on the deepest levels, it is possible for a secular state to create its own deep and powerful appeal. That is an appeal to loyalty, loyalty to a place, a territory, a common home. Strangers to one another in custom and religion may still share a place, a homeland. And within the boundaries of that place, they accept obligations to one another and they demand accountability from their government. The government of such a state is a government of laws, not a government of men, nor of a totalizing religion. Citizens are first and foremost members of a society of strangers, committed to the defense of their common territory and to the maintenance of the law that applies there. Citizenship therefore depends on pre-political loyalties of a territorial kind–loyalties rooted in a sense of the common home and of the transgenerational society that resides there. (60)

But we live in a globalizing world and one wonders if we aren’t on the way to some kind of world citizenship, a sense of the entire globe as our home, a larger home, but still a home within an “all-embracing legal order.” Scruton thinks not. The alternatives to the nation-state, he argues, are bad: “tribes, creed communities, or customary communities united by an imperial power.” Such political structures are “hostile, on the whole, to democratic politics. Nationhood is the best that we can offer by way of a pre-political loyalty that delivers territorial jurisdiction and individual citizenship as its natural political expressions.”(61)

There is a certain plausibility to his argument. Western Europe has welcomed many asylum seekers who, enjoying the rights and privileges of citizens, respond to the incitement of their religious leaders with violence against the very countries that have taken them in. Religion is apparently the problem: “People who see all law, all social identity, and all loyalty as issuing from a religious source cannot really form part of this [Western] political culture, and will not recognize either the obligation to the state or the love of country on which it is founded.” (63) But is this true? Isn’t it rather true that the number of immigrants and asylum seekers who respond to these calls for violence is small. A vast majority of Muslims seem to have made their peace with the secular states in which they live. Unfortunately, we hear little from that majority. Scruton’s understanding of Islam is the understanding we are all acquiring of radical Islam. Those Muslims who have made their peace with the modern secular state seem stricken with silence. How good it would be to hear from them.

What makes me suspicious of Scruton is his use of the word natural. Is it in the nature of human beings that the largest unit to which they may pledge their loyalty is the nation? My suspicions were verified as Scruton went on to express his reservations about immigration, the multicultural society, the loss of the traditional division of labor between men and women. These, he says, tend to break down the pre-political loyalty on which every social contract is founded. He may be right, but is it necessarily so? Is it natural? And does that end the discussion.

The idea of holy law involves what Scruton calls a confiscation of the political. Matters which, in Western societies, are resolved by negotiation, compromise, and the laborious work of bureaucrats and committees become, when law is divine rather than human, the object of immovable and eternal decrees. (91) When holiness is the norm of authority, leadership becomes charismatic and personal. Islamic revivals are rooted in “a desire to rediscover the holy leader who will restore the pure way of life that had been laid down by the prophet.” (94) The Koran does not envision society in terms of territorial jurisdiction over people of diverse beliefs and customs. “The Muslim city is explicitly a city for Muslims, a place of congregation in which individuals and their families live side-by-side in obedience to God, and where non-Muslims exist only on sufferance.” (100) Within such a mentality, the freedom that arises from a secular rule of law is merely a sign of spiritual emptiness.

The global outreach of Western political culture has forced a confrontation, then, between two visions of society that are profoundly contradictory. What to one is good, freedom, to the other is vacuous, corrupt. And those who love freedom find the cultural dominance of religion intolerable, even infuriating. The question that comes to mind is this: Just how deep and how broad is this contradiction in the lives we all live? How many of us manage to shape our lives around convictions so irreducible? It’s a real question and a practical one. Perhaps even an urgent one. Scruton doesn’t really address it, it seems to me.

In the end, though, I like Scruton’s seductive clarity. Reading him reminds me of reading Plato. One of my undergraduate philosophy professors used to say that the way you make a philosopher is to fill him full of Plato and then beat it out of him. Scruton makes you think, even though there’s a lot that needs sorting once you’ve done it.

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