One of the most memorable scenes in the 2010 film “Four Lions,” a dark British comedy about a group of the most incompetent jihadis imaginable, takes place as the aspiring martyrs climb into a van for the long nighttime drive down to London, where their plan is to bomb the annual marathon.
As they set off in the dark, the four jihadis are silent and pensive, listening to a somber recording of chanted verses from the Qu’ran. But as dawn breaks on the outskirts of London, they swap out the Qu’ran for the irrepressibly joyful song “Dancing in the Moonlight” by King Harvest. Bouncing in their seats, they belt out a chorus that violates everything that the cause of jihad represents: “Dancing in the moonlight/Everybody’s feeling warm and bright/It’s such a fine and natural sight/Everybody’s dancing in the moonlight!”
I still laugh out loud when I watch that scene, although after the recent atrocities in Paris, in which 129 innocent people were cruelly murdered by Islamic State terrorists, I’m finding it slightly harder to appreciate the humor. What strikes me more is the realization that the four lions are living between two worlds that cannot be reconciled. One involves an austere, repressive, and deeply violent interpretation of a faith that frowns on anything deemed “haram,” or forbidden by Islam. The other conjures up images of DJs and dance floors, sandy beaches bathed in the light of the Moon, flowing cocktails, and endless processions of pretty girls—all the ingredients of a hedonistic, image-obsessed, yet critically free society. And as the jihadis sing “Dancing in the Moonlight” at the tops of their voices, you, as the viewer, can’t help but wonder whether what they are about do, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, is kill the very thing that they love.
I have no doubt that many Muslims living in the West feel similarly torn. All immigrant groups have had to face the challenge of assimilation, and the associated task of matching the cultural and religious codes of their old societies with the demands and opportunities presented by those nations in which they’ve settled. But for the jihadis who presently dominate the discourse and practice of Islam, there is no choice involved, no notion of compromise or adaptation. For them, it is, as the blood that flowed through the streets of Paris underlined so horrifically, a zero-sum game.
What, then, are we—and by “we” I mean those of us who regard the prospect of living under a theocracy as a fate far worse than death—to do? Certainly, there are practical issues of policy to address: how was such a colossal failure of intelligence, which enabled mass carnage in several locations over a period of 33 minutes, allowed to happen? Was it right that the French authorities allowed the soccer match between France and Germany to continue after the explosions, which could be heard inside the stadium, ricocheted across the city? What should be done with the radical mosques and jihadi preachers that are increasingly common in the dreary suburbs of European cities? And who are our allies in this battle that has been forced upon us? Do we join with the Russians, the Syrians and the Iranians in the fight against Islamic State, or do we recognize that all variants of Islamism are equally poisonous?
I don’t want to discuss any of those matters here, largely because you can read reams of commentary about them elsewhere. Instead, I’d like to focus on first principles. Because if the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy is correct when he says that this is a “war with and without borders, with and without states, a war doubly new because it blends the non-territorial model of al-Qaeda with the old territorial paradigm to which Islamic State has returned,” then we need to define the values that we are defending. And as the crisis of Islamist terrorism has shown, we in the West are definitively squeamish about saying what it is that we, as a civilization, represent.
If we carry on in that vein, then we have no hope of victory—because victory here means inspiring those who would otherwise turn to jihad to embrace the freedoms that have evolved in the painful twists and turns of Western society. Let’s remember that we didn’t achieve rights-based societies solely because thinkers like Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill suggested that such social arrangements are the best guarantors of liberty and prosperity. We have had our share of wars and revolutions, of industrialized slaughter, and especially, of the anti-rational and anti-human forms of totalitarianism that made the last century such a ruinous one.
But therein, you see, lies our potential strength. Our turbulent history has persuaded us that there is a certain type of value system, grounded upon the liberty of the individual, that we wish to live by. We still agonize, however, as to whether it is our right or our duty to recommend, propagate, or impose those values on other civilizations.
One of the most nuanced answers to this dilemma was expressed by the late philosopher Norman Geras, a Marxist academic who nonetheless embraced the strengths of liberal political thought, a fusion made him one of the most distinctive thinkers of recent times. During a 2013 public debate on the subject of defending Western values, Geras said the following:
“Asserting the superiority of certain values is no different from defending them, unless you are going to say that all values are equal or indifferent. But if you defend some values as being better than other values, then you are asserting their superiority. There’s nothing sinister whatsoever about doing that.”
Geras then went on to criticize those who argue that asserting the superiority of Western values is the same as imposing them on others through military might. “It’s a fundamental liberal principle that you argue for certain principles,” he said. “That’s how you try to get them across. By persuasion.”
We cannot, therefore, force others to think like we do—though we can, and must, prevent those who want to destroy the very manner in which we think from succeeding. That is why it is perfectly reasonable for us to speak now of eradicating radical Islam, in much the same way that we sought to eradicate Nazism. Yet eradication is not enough—it needs to be replaced by a different set of values and beliefs.
The idea of a sovereign individual living harmoniously with other citizens who share common norms and social codes and tolerate differences of opinion is the greatest contribution that Western civilization has made. It is better, far better, than anything offered by the prophets of a utopian future—fascist, communist, Islamist—that ends up in the kind of dystopia we see in Syria now.
It is that idea that was attacked in Paris and that idea which we must now defend. And it’s why a song like “Dancing in the Moonlight,” which in normal times sounds pretty mundane, now comes across as a call to arms.
Reprinted with author’s permission from JNS.org