Friday 14 December 2007

In praise of Jean Bethke Elshtain

One of the (many) good things, for me, about the online review Democratiya is the way it has introduced me to writers I wouldn't otherwise have come across. The Summer issue included the text of a speech on 'Defending American values at home and abroad' by political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain. On the strength of this, and having looked up 'What we're fighting for: a letter from America', of which Elshtain was one of the signatories, I bought her book Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World, which was first published in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and updated in 2004 to include a chapter on the Iraq war. OK, so I'm a few years late in making this discovery, but better late than never.

I'm only part-way through the book, but already there's much to praise. Anyone who has ever despaired of the parlous state of the academic Left and its reflexive oppositionism and anti-Americanism should read the chapter headed 'The academy responds to terror', while Elshtain's analysis of 'What happened on September 11' is a cool and methodical deconstruction of blowback theory. And at a time of increasingly shrill anti-secularism among religious commentators, it's refreshing to read a defence of the separation of church and state from a progressive Christian perspective.

As with all good books, you find yourself wanting to quote whole sections. Here, as a taster, is part of Elshtain's dismissal of those who 'insist that America brought the horrors of September 11, 2001, on herself':

Conducted within the boundary of reasonable political debate...are those arguments that an international 'war on poverty and despair', or a change in the direction of U.S. Middle Eastern policy, or a different U.S. policy towards Iraq will stay the hands of murderous terrorists in the future. Certainly those arguments deserve a hearing. Pushing more programs that deal with poverty and despair or rethinking American foreign policy, including our approach to Iraq, may have desirable outcomes. But no such change, either singly or together, will deter Osama bin Laden and those like him [... ] We could do everything demanded of us by those who are critical of America, both inside and outside our boundaries, but Islamist fundamentalism and the threat it poses would not be deterred.


When I claim that changes in our policies would not satisfy Islamists, the reason is quite basic: They loathe us because of who were are and what our society represents [...] bin Laden and his followers mean it when they call us 'infidels'. To Islamists, infidels are those who believe in separation of church and state. Infidels profess the wrong religion, or the wrong version of a religion, or no religion at all. Infidels believe in civic and personal freedom. Infidels educate women and give them a public presence and role. Infidels intermarry across lines of religion. Infidels believe that all people have human rights. Whatever else the United States might do on the world scene to allay the concerns of its opponents, it cannot repeal its founding constitutional principles, which condemn it in the eyes of such fundamentalism.

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