Why Do Religious Extremists Hate America?

Muslims and Christians Agree: America is Too Secular

Burning the American Flag
Burning the American Flag. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images News

In the past I’ve been critical of right-wing extremists who claim that Muslim radicals abroad hate America because people “abuse” their freedoms and, therefore, America needs to become less free. There may be a kernel of truth to this perspective, though: America’s separation of church and state, and of religion and culture, outrages those who believe their religion should define everything.

The problem for Christian conservatives who level this complaint against Muslim radicals is the fact that this is also the reason why so many .

The simple fact is that both Muslim and Christian critics of the West generally and America in particular, whether they qualify as simply conservative or as radical extremists, agree in much of what they consider to be wrong, sinful, and objectionable about the modern era.

In Terror and Liberalism, Paul Berman writes about the American experiences of Sayyid Qutb, an ideological founder of modern Islamic extremism:

Freedom in a liberal society seemed to Qutb no freedom at all. That kind of freedom was merely one more expression of the hideous schizophrenia — the giant error that places the material world over here, and God over there. Qutb considered that, in a liberal society, religion has been reduced to a set of rituals and a private morality, quite as if the individual human heart were the final arbiter of moral behavior. But the human heart is not the final arbiter. The final arbiter is God.

What’'s remarkable about this is the simple fact that none of Qutb’s critiques are the least bit unique to Islam.

This paragraph could be rewritten by substituting the name of any major leader of the Christian Right for Qutb'’s and I don’t think anyone would find it objectionable or misleading. It’'s certain that no one would recognize it as being about an Egyptian who helped develop the ideology behind Islamic extremism back in the 1950s and 1960s rather than about a Christian today.

 

Divine Sovereignty vs. Popular Sovereignty

For fundamentalists, one of the primarily religious values is the sovereignty of God: God created everything and has absolute rights to it all. The problem with modern, secular society is that it violates this sovereignty by creating new rules which override the wishes of . It doesn't matter what "the people" might want for their lives because they are obligated to obey God; if they want things which God has forbidden, that's simply proof that they can't be trusted to rule themselves.

Unfortunately, too many people are willful and refuse to follow God’'s laws. They vote to create their own laws, but these laws merely reflect the will of men rather than the will of God. Does any of this sound familiar? It should: it’s very similar to the criticisms made by the Christian Right about America. One difference, though, is that the Christian Right thinks that it has a potential majority backing for enacting God’s laws over society.

There is something else to consider as well: not only would the above quote from Qutb be easy to attribute to members of the Christian Right today, but few of them would regard this perspective as itself objectionable, radical, or extremist.

It’'s become the “mainstream” view of conservative evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and other religious conservatives in America today.

In other words, some of the starting premises that lie behind the ideology of Islamic extremism and terrorism are accepted without a second thought by conservative Christians today.

This should be enough to give anyone a chill down their spine; conservative Christians themselves, though, should be the first to find this troubling. They should worry about whether they have been led to accept beliefs which could have terrible implications down the road. They should take a step back and reconsider their opposition to liberalism and the liberal democratic state:

 

Religious Anti-Liberalism

For someone like Sayyid Qutb, secularism undermines religious values and must be eliminated.

Secularism allows for doubt in the existence of God to flourish and this in turns leads to atheism, which is perhaps the worst thing that can happen to either a person or a society. He denied that any society could be just, moral, or decent without having a foundation in God and God's teachings - and that's what happened when liberalism was allowed to take hold, infecting society and people with its pernicious temptations.

American hypocrisy exercised him; but only slightly. His deepest quarrel was not with America’s failure to uphold its principles. His quarrel was with the principles. He opposed the United States because it was a liberal society, and not because it failed to be a liberal society.

The truly dangerous element in American life was not capitalism, or foreign policy, or racism, or the exploitation of women. The truly dangerous part lay in the separation of Church and State. The dangerous part was the laxity of religious standards and convictions -— the laxity that, by implication, left in doubt the existence of only one God, the laxity that descended from two thousand years of ecclesiastical deviation and error. This was not a political criticism. This was theological... [emphasis added]

Qutb'’s stated goals were much the same as the stated goals of Christian conservatives who support military and ideological assaults on the Middle East. Qutb, ironically, is often cited as a symbol of what Western powers regard as the problem in the Middle East. Qutb'’s followers are not treated like colleagues in the cause of advancing liberty; instead, they are the enemies. Qutb and his followers are the “Islamo-fascists” leading terrorists in their war” against America and the West.

The reason is obvious, of course: they may all share many of the same critiques of modernity and liberalism, but they hold radically different views on the sort of "God" and "religion" which is supposedly needed in order to solve all of the alleged problems they complain about. Just as Muslims and Christians squabble amongst themselves over theological minutiae, they fight each other over their much greater differences.

This makes the rest of us very fortunate; if they actually managed to agree, they might find success in their desire to put an end to modernity.