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How to reverse the West’s decline


Pioneer of sociology: In his philosophy of history, Ibn Khaldun recognised the value of "Asabiyah" (social cohesion)

It is not clear that the West has successfully met the challenge of 9/11. Worse: it is not clear that the West yet fully understands what the challenge is. 

To understand 2001 we have to go back to 1989, the year of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was an historic moment that few had expected. What did it mean? It was then that two stories were born, with one of which we are familiar, the other of which we seem hardly to know or understand at all.

The first narrative was that the West had won. Communism had imploded. In the end, it failed to deliver the goods. People wanted freedom. They sought affluence. The Soviet Union had delivered neither. Politically it was repressive. Economically it was inefficient. For freedom you need liberal democracy. For affluence you need the market economy. 1989 marked the victory of both. From here on democratic capitalism would spread slowly but surely across the world. To adapt Francis Fukuyama's phrase of the time, it was the beginning of the end of history.

The other narrative was quite different but has the advantage of so far being proved correct. Unlike Fukuyama's, it was based not on Hegel but on the 14th-century Islamic thinker Ibn Khaldun. We don't know much about Ibn Khaldun in the West but we should. He was one of the truly great thinkers of the Middle Ages. He has every claim to be called the world's first sociologist. Not for another 300 years would the West produce a figure of comparable originality: Giambattista Vico. Both produced compelling accounts of the rise and fall of civilisations. Both knew what most people most of the time forget: that the greatest civilisations eventually fall. The reason they do so is not necessarily the rise of a stronger power. It is their own internal decay.

Most accounts of al-Qaeda focus on the intellectual influence of the 20th-century thinker and critic of the West, Sayyid Qutb. That influence was real. But the deeper story the leaders of al-Qaeda told in 1989, without which 9/11 is unintelligible, had less to do with Qutb and hatred of the West and its freedoms; and much more to do with the key precipitating event of the fall of Communism: the withdrawal, in 1989, of the Soviet army from Afghanistan.

It was that event that set in motion the rapid collapse of one of the world's two superpowers. It was achieved not by the United States and its military might, but by a small group of religiously inspired fighters, the mujahideen and their helpers. Ibn Khaldun's theory was that every urban civilisation becomes vulnerable when it grows decadent from within. People live in towns and get used to luxuries. The rich grow indolent, the poor resentful. There is a loss of asabiyah, a keyword for Khaldun. Nowadays we would probably translate it as "social cohesion". People no longer think in terms of the common good. They are no longer willing to make sacrifices for one another. Essentially they lose the will to defend themselves. They then become easy prey for the desert dwellers, the people used to fighting to stay alive.

That, so it seemed to those who read history that way, is what happened in Afghanistan. It was never possible for a small group to defeat a superpower by conventional means. But it could go on endlessly inflicting casualty after casualty until eventually the superpower — more like a lumbering elephant than a wounded lion — withdrew. The desert dwellers are hungrier, tougher and more ruthless than the city dwellers who long more than anything for a quiet life.

That was the calculation. The odd thing is, it worked. And those who had fought the Soviet Union looked on in wonder at the effect of their victory. For not only did the Russians withdraw. Within an extraordinarily short time their whole empire collapsed. Ibn Khaldun was right. The society had grown rotten from within. It had lost its asabiyah, its cohesion. It had lost the will to fight.

If that is what a small group of highly motivated religious fighters could do to one superpower, why not the other, America and the West? America could not be defeated on its own ground. But what if it could be tempted, provoked, into occupying the very same ground that had seen the humiliating withdrawal of the Soviet army, namely Afghanistan itself? To do so would require a truly massive provocation, one so shocking that it would make the Americans forget what everyone knew, that Afghanistan is a death trap that ultimately defeats all invading armies. That is when 9/11 was born.

The theory was that the Americans and the Russians might be unalike in every other respect, but this they shared: that they were advanced urban civilisations in which the social bond, asabiyah, had grown weak. They were no longer lean and hungry. They were overweight and lacked the capacity for sustained sacrifice. If America could be provoked into occupying Afghanistan, it could be defeated exactly as the Soviets had been, not by any decisive battle but by sustained asymmetric warfare. The proof was that American troops had withdrawn from Lebanon in 1984 and Somalia in 1994 under just such circumstances. They had no more staying power than the Russians. Like the Russians, within a decade they would be looking for an exit strategy. 9/11 was the attempt to lure the United States into Afghanistan, and it worked.

The aim of al-Qaeda never was the collapse of the West. It was the withdrawal of American troops from Saudi Arabia, together with larger aspirations for the revival of the Caliphate and the reemergence of the Umma as a world power. But the collapse of the West was foreseen. It was not an aim but a consequence, and it followed from Ibn Khaldun's theory of the decline and fall of civilisations.

Has it happened? Not yet. But ten years on, the United States has been humiliated into renegotiating its trillions of dollars of debt. Western economies, almost all of them, are ailing. The European Union is under strain, its future in doubt. There have been riots and looting on the streets of London and Manchester, just as there have been in recent years in France, Greece and Spain. The global economy looks far less stable than it did before the collapse of 2008. In Europe, following a series of scandals, bankers, politicians, journalists and even the police have been tried and found wanting. Those who read the runes of the future are turning their eyes eastward to India, China, and the fast-growing economies of south-east Asia. The West no longer looks invincible. As a narrative, the "end of history" has proved less predictive than the "decline of civilisations". So far, Hegel 0, Ibn Khaldun 1.

The real challenge of 9/11 is not what it seemed at the time: Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, Sayyid Qutb and radical Islam. These were real and present threats, to be sure, but they were symptoms, not cause. The challenge was the underlying moral health of Western liberal democracies, their asabiyah, their sense of identity and collective responsibility, their commitment to one another and to the ideals that brought them into being. The counter-narrative of 1989 and the fall of Soviet Communism saw it not as a victory for the West but as part of a law of history that says: all great civilisations eventually decline, and the West will be the next to go.

That view is not limited to enemies of the West. It was most recently stated by the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson in his Civilization: The West and the Rest. It was most powerfully formulated by Alasdair MacIntyre in his masterwork, After Virtue. My favourite version of it comes from Bertrand Russell in the introduction to his History of Western Philosophy, speaking about the tendency of the most creative civilisations to self-destruct:

What had happened in the great age of Greece happened again in Renaissance Italy. Traditional moral restraints disappeared, because they were seen to be associated with superstition; the liberation from fetters made individuals energetic and creative, producing a rare florescence of genius; but the anarchy and treachery which inevitably resulted from the decay of morals made Italians collectively impotent, and they fell, like the Greeks, under the domination of nations less civilised than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion.

Social cohesion is what Ibn Khaldun called asabiyah. And Russell's description of Renaissance Italy fits precisely the postmodern, late capitalist West, with its urge to spend and its failure to save, its moral relativism and hyper-individualism, its political culture of rights without responsibilities, its aggressive secularism and resentment of any morality of self-restraint, and its failure to inculcate the habits of instinctual deferral that Sigmund Freud saw as the very basis of civilisation. Sayyid Qutb hated the West. Ibn Khaldun would have pitied the West. The pity is more serious than the hate.

There is a simple choice before us. Will we continue to act in ignorance of this other narrative? If so, we will replicate the fate of Greece in the second pre-Christian century as described by Polybius ("the people of Hellas had entered on the false path of ostentation, avarice and laziness"), and that of Rome two centuries later, when Livy wrote about "how, with the gradual relaxation of discipline, morals first subsided, as it were, then sank lower and lower, and finally began the downward plunge which has brought us to our present time, when we can endure neither our vices nor their cure." If we carry on as we are going, the West will decline and fall. 

There is, to my mind, only one sane alternative. That is to do what England and America did in the 1820s. Those two societies, deeply secularised after the rationalist 18th century, scarred and fractured by the problems of industrialisation, calmly set about remoralising themselves, thereby renewing themselves.

The three decades, 1820-1850, saw an unprecedented proliferation of groups dedicated to social, political and educational reform-building schools, YMCAs, orphanages, starting temperance groups, charities, friendly societies, campaigning for the abolition of slavery, corporal punishment and inhumane working conditions, and working for the extension of voting rights. Alexis de Tocqueville was astonished by what he saw in America and the same process was happening at the same time in Britain.

People did not leave it to government or the market. They did it themselves in communities, congregations, groups of every shape and size. They understood the connection between morality and morale. They knew that only a society held together by a strong moral bond, by asabiyah, has any chance of succeeding in the long run. That collective effort of remoralisation eventually made Britain the greatest world power in the 19th century and America in the 20th.

It is a peculiarity of the Abrahamic monotheisms that they see, at the heart of society, the idea of covenant. Covenantal politics are politics with a purpose, driven by high ideals, among them the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the rule of justice and compassion, and concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. G.K. Chesterton called America a "nation with the soul of a church". Britain used to be like that too. In the 1950s there was no television at certain hours on Sunday so as not to deter churchgoing. Sundays helped keep families together, families helped keep communities together, and communities helped keep society together. I, a Jew growing up in a Christian nation, did not feel threatened by this. I felt supported by it — much more than I do now in an ostensibly more tolerant but actually far more abrasive, rude and aggressive society.

What is unique about covenant is its seemingly endless possibility of renewal. It happened in the Bible in the days of Joshua, Josiah and Ezra. It happened in America between 1820 and 1850 in the Second Great Awakening. It happened in Britain at the same time through the great Victorian social reformers and philanthropists. Covenant defeats the law of entropy that says that all systems lose energy over time. It creates renewable energy. It has the power to arrest, even reverse, the decline and fall of nations.

None of us should be in any doubt as to the seriousness of what is at stake. Europe today is pursuing the chimera of societies without a shared moral code, nations without a collective identity, cultures without a respect for tradition, groups without a concern for the common good, and politics without the slightest sense of history. Ibn Khaldun, were he alive, would tell them precisely where that leads.

The question is not radical Islam but, does the West believe in itself any more? Is it capable of renewing itself as it did two centuries ago? Or will it crumble as did the Soviet Union from internal decay. "We have met the enemy," said the cartoon character Pogo, "and he is us." That is the challenge of 9/11. It's about time we came together to meet it.

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What a fabulous article! And hopeful too!

Posted by Fiona on 2011-09-14 08:25:46 GMT

Well Ymr, I"m not going to spoon feed you. It left such an imprint on my psyche I just waited for the fall out for a decent society, it was over the mark. It was a brutal and public execution and America had a role to play. Him being searched for fleas and lice like a dog was deplorable, there were no weapons of mass desruction as the world was led to believe, it was oil and politics and the government of the day, who were originally bedmates with him started something bigger, and it has come back to haunt them taking others with them.

Posted by Lynne Newington on 2011-09-14 08:11:05 GMT

Anon (Hmmmmm) - I have no idea what you are talking about. I never mentioned Hussein, but since you have, I believe (not having been there), he was tried and judged by an Iraqi tribunal, hung and vidoetaped by Iraqis, (who knows, they may all have been US puppets, and if so, why not, and who cares? No Iraqi did.). BYW, they haven"t fled yet...altho" a schedule is on the cards. Australia"s record has not been a good one, from the abysmal treatment of the aborigines to refugees today (from countries we are actually fighting to protect). It"s not a great record. What has Israel"s record on cap. punishment (since Eichmann)got to do with the trial of Saddam Hussein (who by the way lobbed 39 SCUD missiles at it, in Gulf War I, when Israel extraordinarily SAT THAT WAR OUT, at US request?) And what on earth has this to do with the much mooted and long-awaited demise of Western Civilization, the subject of the posted article here? Hey, its my Birthday, and I"m going out for a drink!

Posted by Geo. P on 2011-09-13 12:15:35 GMT

You"re way off beam Ymr, there"s no comparison what"s so ever. Read up on it.

Posted by Lynne Newington on 2011-09-13 12:10:11 GMT

GP, America lost me when they fled and publicly hung Saddam Hussein. Australians would never stoop to such levels, nor would Israel.

Posted on 2011-09-13 11:42:30 GMT

I"m sorry GP, I didn"t identify myself.

Posted by Lynne Newington on 2011-09-13 07:06:42 GMT

As a Dual Citizen, having lived in the US for some 25 years, I have to agree with MeyerM, below. One of the very first things that struck me upon moving there to live was the extraordinary patriotism exhibited by ordinary citizens, and this was indeed in striking contrast to Australians who seem to do little more than lip service by saying "Crikey, it"s the best place in the world to live " etc, wihout really being able to say why. They had to fight for over 5 years against the British to be independent, again in 1812 when their capital was incinerated, and a brutal Civil War, scars still not healed, unfortunately. They had Founding Fathers to be proud of and are revered and quoted daily (who remembers the name of the first Australian PM?). You don"t see a flag on a pole in front of every Austr home on Jan 26th. (as you do see in US July 4, indeed, often, permanently). In fact one could go further and say the patriotism is perhaps more than that, possibly descending to Chauvinism. Perhaps the Lucky Country has been little too lucky?

Posted by GP on 2011-09-13 05:39:35 GMT

No need to get personal, Z. I live on Earth, and have lived and travelled the US. Whatever your personal views of the US, and that of your friend, extrapolating from one to 312 million is not valid. Americans are, in the main patriotic. There is corruption, greed, stupidity and incompetence in all countries, and many today also suffer economic hardship. Americans are proud of their history and cherish their freedoms, and most would unite and defend their nation against attack.

Posted by Meyer Mussry on 2011-09-13 04:40:51 GMT

Dear MM: I don"t know which planet you inhabit, but I don"t think it"s the same one shared by the millions of desperate Americans who are fed up with the corruption, greed, incompompetence and stupidity that have brought their nation so low. My American friend has given up on it all. After Chase takes her house, she"s joining her daughter in Toronto. She"s one of the lucky ones. At least she has the chance to start afresh. Who knows: she may even get patriotic about Canada.

Posted on 2011-09-13 02:54:47 GMT

With all due respects, Zelda, your example of an individual going through economic hardship does not negate the fundamental patriotism of Americans. Even in your example you have not confirmed that your friend feels any less American as a result of the hardship. I still maintain my position.

Posted by Meyer Mussry on 2011-09-13 01:25:09 GMT

Thanks to an ICJS email, exposing Islam could possibly take second seat to exposing how America has lost its moral fortitude that has made America great. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about an Islamic term Asabiyah which Sacks defines as "social cohesion". Rabbi Sacks attributes the concept to Muslim philosopher Ibn Khaldun. Of course the Khaldun concept of social cohesion dealt with the expansion of Islam during Muslim imperialism days of conquest, transform, convert or kill. History demonstrates few strong civilizations were able to end or reverse moral fracturing. Rabbi Sacks points out two modern nations that actually did reverse moral fracturing: Great Britain and the USA.

Posted on 2011-09-12 21:05:48 GMT

I have a close friend in that "Right To Work" state, Florida, where unemployment is almost 11 percent. She is super bright, but hasn"t been able to land a job since she was retrenched two years ago and now she"s about to lose her home. Countless Americans are living that nightmare and the self-employed aren"t even eligible for food stamps, much less the dole. They are desperate and frightened, and I daresay would gag at the presumption that they"re deeply patriotic and love their country.

Posted by Zelda Cawthorne on 2011-09-12 13:36:47 GMT

well, i thought he was taking us to the see the obvious - the civilisation of Islam is in fact collapsing these days. 9/11 is the gift Bin Laden gave to millions of muslims who are now on the long path to freedom.

Posted by Hagai Avisar on 2011-09-12 12:39:44 GMT

Many people have said that it is the persecution of the Jews over the centuries that has resulted in their survival, as it forced them together as a unit, relying on each other for support, and prevented their assimilation into wider society. If this is true, then the attacks on the West, which America takes as a personal attack, has united the American people and made them stronger. Osama made a fundamental mistake in underestimating the American spirit and the strength of the US. Americans are deeply patriotic and love their country and the freedoms it gives them. They would and do defend it to the death. His actions galvanised them instead of bleeding them to a slow death. While it is true that earlier great nations fell apart within, it is because they lost the narrative of what made them strong. The West has similar problems - declining fish stocks, land and air degradation, booming populations, mineral resources running out - all of these pose existential threats that require long term solutions. Yet, politics and business are based on short term results. The internal narrative is wrong, but not as the Rabbi states. I see these as the main existential problems for the West, not diversity of views, which is, after all, its greatest strength.

Posted by Meyer Mussry on 2011-09-12 06:01:13 GMT

Have to agree with poster below(anon). West becoming, frightened, flabby etc. BinLaden saw this is from America not just in Viet, but more recently in Lebanon and Somalia (Sacks talks about this)...we were very quick to run, when the going got tough. Britain has never lost the capacity for appeasement, even after Chamberlain. We Jews know that is exactly what the infamous 1939 White Paper was, severely limiting immigration to Israel for at least 5 years (to appease the Arabs.)And they still the same, the French not much better. Pathetic. BTW, I do think I have looked at the principle......there is loss of confidence, a loss of nerve, a loss of will in my postings below, including the anonymous one.

Posted by Geo. P on 2011-09-12 05:35:18 GMT

All undoubtedly true ... but you are looking at a single conflict rather than the principle. America lost Vietnam because it lost the stomach to fight. It failed to consolidate gains in the first Iraq war because it lost the stomach to fight. It got out of Lebanon, because it lost the stomach to fight. So the question posed by Rabbi Sacks remains "have we become so bloated and so afraid of risk, that we will fail to fight for our survival?" When you think of the high volunteer rate in the two world wars, and the certainty people had in the values they were protecting, could there be a war, where the West simply fails to show? Many Aussies were lost in Bali, yet, our society is still split quite equally between appeasers and those who realise that we have to fight to retain what we have. Many fail to realise that war isn"t coming ... it"s already here, as is, unfortunately, the legacy of Chamberlain.

Posted on 2011-09-12 05:14:51 GMT

Ymr - With all due respect, I have no idea what you are talking about: "the reference to clash of civilization, conflict and war are in every paragraph of the article. If you didn"t notice before awake and smell the coffee. Denial is the least effective option. " Hah???????? Firstly, they are not in every para, and second I don"t need Bernard Lewis or Sam Huntington, or you to tell me about "clash of civilizations". This is *exactly* what I was saying, in very great detail, and this is going on for 1400 years, and I think you need to actually READ what people write here. Here it is again: "As for conflict, it goes on, the 14 Century jihad against what used to known as "Christendom", now simply called the West, with the US as its exemplar, both as a superpower, and, very interestingly, the most devoutly Christian nation on the planet. On this anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, we see the conflict continues, but it"s not a classic military conflict; asymmetrical warfare ("guerrilla"?) in the age of a single hyperpower. So, nothing has changed,". Certainly denial is not an option, I have to agree with that, and indeed, that is precisely what I was trying to say by emphasizing the longevity of this struggle. "Clash of Civilizations" is simply Lewis" description coined in his Atlantic Monthly article the "Roots of Muslim Rage" in 1990, and a fine article it is. But I think he would also be the first to agree that this is nothing new; from the 7th Century, the conquest of North Africa, Araby and more, defeated only at Vienna in 1683, to the irredentist ,resurgent, ongoing desire to destroy the House of Unbelief (House of War) i.e. all who are not Muslims. Please don"t tell me I am in denial. I know very clearly who the (external) enemy is, and am sadly accused of being an Islamophobe by those who are utterly ignorant of history. A crazy mixed up world, in which Israel is the most demonized country on the planet, and the great religion of jihad, of the sword, of terror, of total denial of rights, of 7th Century nostalgia and pre-medieval sensibilities is kow-towed to by so many and called a religion of peace (extraordinarily, even by GW Bush), who had every good reason to be hostile to it. This is a world gone completely mad, or less extremely put, as stated before, has lost its self-understanding of what made it what is is/was, and also lost its will, its nerve. So yes, it is arguably decaying from within. In this regard, we are indeed our own worst enemy. As I"ve stated, a collective amnesia. You can read Lewis yourself if you wish: "At times this hatred goes beyond hostility to specific interests or actions or policies or even countries and becomes a rejection of Western civilization as such, not only what it does but what it is, and the principles and values that it practices and professes. These are indeed seen as innately evil, and those who promote or accept them as the "enemies of God."

Posted on 2011-09-12 04:19:17 GMT

Ymr, I was referring to individual comments, the Rabbi wrote the article, not to worry. They say to keep your friends close - but your enemies closer, I quess one could say that is a healthy respect, I don"t know about deception, how could you have one without the other. I"m afraid I"m not one who could wear two hats so to speak and never could, forget about the unhappiness. I would never have made good military personel either and how politicians do it.

Posted by Lynne Newington on 2011-09-12 02:32:15 GMT

I think many can agree on the need to see a revival of shared morality and values. This is of course our achilles heel.

Posted by Vicki Janson on 2011-09-12 02:30:57 GMT

Our ability to defend ourselves, no matter what the threat, is what matters. That is the thrust of the article. It is as true of the Cold War as of the current threat, as of the next one, assuming we survive this one. If we are perceived as easily able to fight off threats, we will not be threatened. Our perceived disintegration and lack of courage ... "fire in the belly" is how Sacks put it, is the greatest threat to our continued existence. Could it be simpler?

Posted by Morry on 2011-09-12 01:32:36 GMT

Marry - I think I mentioned Khaldun in abut two lines (total) of some quite lengthy posts with my own commentary on Sack"s analysis. I am not sure you read them all. The message is not as simple as "living and working together". And Islam does matter.

Posted by GP on 2011-09-11 15:48:47 GMT

@Geo. P Sacks" article isn"t about Ibn Khaldun ... he"s just a vehicle to introduce the importance of a cohesive society with shared values. Nor do Islam or Islamists really matter. They are more a symptom of our Western malaise, which is the subject of Sacks" analysis, than anything else. It is no accident that at the very time we are experiencing social upheaval and internal strife, Islamic forces have chosen to strike us. The lesson is a simple one, if we cannot learn to live together and work together, we will be defeated. The detail in analysing the article really doesn"t matter beyond that, and if Sacks totally misquoted or misrepresented Ibn Khaldun, it wouldn"t change this reality one jot.

Posted by Morry on 2011-09-11 14:50:44 GMT

Dear Ymr- I don"t believe I recalled mentioning conflict, let alone military conflict once, but now that you have raised the subject, let"s go back to Sacks" concluding para: "The question is not radical Islam but, does the West believe in itself any more?" Both wrong and right, respectively. The question is not radical Islam, but Islam per se, since the term radical is redundant (if pressed, I could add the prefix Political (to Islam). All attempts by moderate Muslims to speak out have been effectively silenced. So,there remains only Islam, a military/political/legal system that shrouds itself under the tenuous penumbra of an Abrahamic "religion". Sacks is correct in his second question, and as stated before, at length, the answer is no: the West has lost confidence. Witness Obama"s 2009 humiliating Cairo speech to the Ummah, identifying all the sins of the world with the West. Not only has it achieved nothing, in terms of normalization of relations with the target audience, but it"s factually incorrect - I can"t think of any example of US imperialism or colonialism in the Muslim world, despite its first overseas venture as a newborn nation against the Barbary pirates...Tripoli and all that, and still in the news today, as we speak (Ironically, I voted, for him, twice. But them. McCain not the most attractive candidate). As for conflict, it goes on, the 14 Century jihad against what used to known as "Christendom", now simply called the West, with the US as its exemplar, both as a superpower, and, very interestingly, the most devoutly Christian nation on the planet. On this anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, we see the conflict continues, but it"s not a classic military conflict; asymmetrical warfare ("guerrilla"?) in the age of a single hyperpower. So, nothing has changed, as I see it, except that Islam has become newly emergent, having regrouped (somewhat) after the collapse of the Ottomans a century ago. As a footnote, I"d add that the Jews are but bit players in this cosmic saga. I"d also add that I personally don"t think that there"s a great deal I can learn from this enemy of the West, as you have indicated.

Posted by Geo. P on 2011-09-11 13:52:49 GMT

Further, to expand on my point below, not so sure Sacks has read Khaldun properly, with his emphasis on social cohesion. Ibn Khaldun considered the primary cause of civilizational decline to be forgetfulness. This could be defined as the “tendency of civilized men to take for granted the complex and peculiar historical conditions that permitted them to behave as civilized men.” It is a collective amnesia, a forgetting of who we are, and of how we came to be, and therefore of what we must do to continue being. This is the very crisis that threatens to undermine and finally destroy everything in the West that has been worth emulating by foreign cultures. In the East itself, the situation may well be past the crisis point, for the conditions that raised Islamic civilization to the heights it once attained seem to be irretrievably lost, leaving us “others” in the unhappy position where we may only be able to learn from the Islamic past. People could a lot worse than read Lee Harris, I suggest.

Posted by Geo. P on 2011-09-11 06:55:33 GMT

Rabbi Sacks" essay is a dog"s breakfast of bits and pieces filling in the space between the start and the lesson at the end, just like a sermon. True that ibn Khaldun (iK) commented on society, but more important was his view that it had to adhere to sharia; that rigidity, which Sacks mistakes for cohesion, lead to the decline of mohammedanism. iK"s call for asabiyah was no more than for every member of mohammedan society to accept its laws. With regard to Sacks" other comments on 9/11, al Qaeda and conflict, one can only note how expert he is on torah and he should remain within his field. If Sacks wanted to gain an insight into mohammedan society, he sould have read Price-Jones"s "The Closed Circle" and noted the bloody dissension in those societies from the time of mMohammed"s death. The Taliban defeated the then USSR through the assistance of the USA, which was returning the favour for its defeat in Viet Nam. The two lessons to be drawn from that are: (1) no proxy war can be won without destroying support base - in the case of Afghanistan that would mean taking on Pakistan and China and with Israel taking on the EU and the OIC and (2) if you are going to use rats to do your dirty work have a plan to get rid of them when their task is done. Sack"s analysis with regard to social organisation 1820 - 1850 is faulty. The societies formed in England were influenced by a freely forming society that was spreading out and had to organise itself, one which shared notions of freedom with the French, a competitor of England which felt confident to try some of those notions after the imperial wars of Napoleon were defeated. This draws us to Israel, which needs to be given a chance to decisively beat the Arabs without east of west saving them from their evil and folly and the morality which underlies any society is its common purpose and ideals, which is embodied in Israel"s continuing existential battle.

Posted by paul2 on 2011-09-11 05:46:52 GMT

I can"t see where anyone has specifically referred to Judaism, but western society in general. Maybe Iv"e missed something.

Posted by Lynne Newington on 2011-09-11 03:18:53 GMT

Brilliant article! Also read the comments ... the issue isn"t about having morality, but about the cohesive force of shared ethics and morality. In that instance, the real enemies are relativism, and multiculturalism. The subjugation of society to the individual, where, even legally, individual rights trump those of society. People will advocate an individuals freedom of speech, while the truth of what he/she may be saying, or the things and its impact on others in society is largely ignored. The concept of "absolute freedom" has supplanted that of "common good". The Max Brenner boycott epitonises this. The right to block a shop as a form of freedom of expression has, for many, supplanted the right of a family which runs an Australian business to feed and educate its children. We have become a society where the focus is on the advancement of the individual, not society ... we have lost our "Asabiyah", our glue that makes us a homogenous society that cares for each other, not just for ourselves. At the bottom line ... we all have morality, it"s just not a shared morality, but a very fractured one, aqnd we argue vehemently from our own moral perspective, not hearing that the other has a different one, instead we choose to see them as simply "immoral". For some it"s immoral to let in boat people who are "jumping queues", whilst others will argue just as vehemently that its immoral not to ... clearly we have different moral compasses that are leading to a breakdown of this society, just as the article states.

Posted by Morry on 2011-09-11 01:16:06 GMT

Just going over the comments. On a simplistic level to Ronit"s, just individual accountability would make a difference in the world. One doesn"t need to be a Christian as such to have ethics, moral or otherwise, mostly taught at the knee and by example. If not, then by reading and learning from the sages, there"s no excuse today for ignorance and as a society, I think we have a responsability to be well informed and act on it. I"d like to think that"s what I do.

Posted by Lynne Newington on 2011-09-11 00:39:43 GMT

To YMR: Sacks’s thesis is finely perched on a fuzzy connection between civics and morality. Most people have no difficulty seeing the connection between morality and a flourishing society. But failing to see the civics side of it leaves them bewildered. They believe in a kind of pure morality. Sacks tells us that without the civic virtues, pure morality doesn't cut it.

Posted by Ralph Zwier on 2011-09-10 22:26:14 GMT

I would have thought it was blindingly obvious that the West had long ago lost sign of what made it great, what made it what is is today, that it has lost its will, refused to stand up for those principles and ideals, and to take the easy way out: that it is suffering a form of collective amnesia

Posted by Geo P. on 2011-09-10 14:51:25 GMT

Jonathan Sacks touches on important ideas. He is obviously disturbed by the London riots. Melanie Phillips raises the same concerns in "Londonistan". She said Britain had lost confidence in itself as a Christian nation. Let"s hope Sacks can get the right people stirred up to do the right thing. Maybe the philo-semites will come out of the woodwork to shame the anti-semites. George Elliot was one (see her novel "Daniel Deronda" in the 1850s, which promoted Zionism.)

Posted by Ruth on 2011-09-10 13:34:36 GMT

I enjoyed reading this very much, thanks. Have forwarded it on to a couple of others. A quick mention about the rescue by the Egyptian commando"s from the Israeli Embassy, say"s something.

Posted by Lynne Newington on 2011-09-10 13:10:53 GMT

This is, indeed, an informed and very important article.

Posted by Naomi on 2011-09-10 13:10:03 GMT

This article was a mixed bag. Certainly the idea that Al-Qaeda attacked the US in order to get the US to invade Afghanistan is more than a stretch. It is far more likely that, since bin Laden thought of the US as being weak, he expected the US to retreat from the Middle East rather than fight. What evidence we have seems to show that bin Laden was surprised by the assertive response of the US. He was surely just as surprised to see American soldiers enter his house in Pakistan and send him on his way to hell. What is correct about the article is that every country needs some "social cohesion". What Sacks did not emphasize enough is that Western social democracy, which Sacks probably supports, is anti-social and destroys social cohesion. By social democracy, I mean the social welfare state. What few in the West realize is that it would be hard to find a more anti-social ideology than socialism. Just look at the unions. Their leaders are always talking about war against the rich or against corporations, and they use violent, anti-social language like they were born to it. They only think of themselves, rarely of the society as a whole. What"s more, statism requires that people leave their social networks and depend on the mother state instead. When that happens, social cohesion goes with it. The other mistake Sacks makes is to underplay the threat of radical Islam. This force has been somewhat weakened, but it is still strong. Every poll of the Middle East shows how fanatical a majority of its people are. For Sacks, of all people, to ignore the widespread virulent, exterminationist anti-Semitism throughout the Islamic world is incomprehensible. Hundreds of millions of Muslims still believe that 9/11 was an American-Zionist (code for Jew) conspiracy. The damage that such a sick culture can do should not be underestimated.

Posted by Herb on 2011-09-10 12:46:55 GMT

I don"t believe that individuals can take "global responsibility". I"d be happy if individuals took personal responsibility...for the state of their families and their communities, for their moral values, ethics and education. If individuals knew and held dear what they valued and believed would lead to a culture willing to defend its values and protect its environment...

Posted by Ronit on 2011-09-10 11:22:24 GMT

Forgot to add my name to the comment below.

Posted by Zelda Cawthorne on 2011-09-10 10:57:55 GMT

Indeed, civilizations rise and fall, and some of us may be around to see what the world is like under a dominant China. Then again, maybe not. There are now some 7 billion people on this suffering planet whose natural resources are being destroyed at breakneck speed. Unless Homo Sapiens can rid itself of its fixations with East, West and the rest, and assume global responsibility, our species is doomed. That"s the big picture - infinitely more terrifying than 9/11 and all the other atrocities committed by mankind.

Posted on 2011-09-10 10:54:24 GMT