WASHINGTON, May 13 (UPI) -- The time is pressing for Muslims to join the modern world in a fruitful fashion, the president of an influential Washington think tank declared Monday.
Hillel Fradkin, head of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, reminded his audience at Washington's American Enterprise Institute of the "variety of curses" the modern world has brought with it, curses such as weapons of mass destruction.
In this situation, it would be helpful if "serious and thoughtful Muslims" looked in earnest at the manner in which Christians and Jews have successfully wrestled with the paradoxes confronting believers in the one true God "in whom we, like the Muslims, profess to believe."
In his lecture titled "Jewish and Islamic Thought and 9/11," Fradkin related a concern expressed by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz about the need to address "the collision of misunderstanding between the Muslim and Western worlds."
Fradkin said Wolfowitz had told him in a telephone call, "Today we are fighting a war on terror -- a war that we will win. The larger war we face is the war of ideas -- a challenge to be sure, but one that we must also win.
"It is a struggle over modernity and secularism, pluralism and democracy, real economic development. To achieve victory in this larger conflict, we must work to understand the many facets of the Muslim world."
A renowned Jewish scholar of religion and especially of Islam, Fradkin took issue with what he called "the common notion that our enemies, Bin Laden and others, yearn for the Middle Ages and want to return the Muslim world to them." Rather, they seek to return Islam to its roots.
Fradkin described the Middle Ages as "the starting point of a process which has led to modern life, whereas they appear to remain a fixed and eternal moment for Muslims.
"The radical Muslims who attacked us do not want to return to the Middle Ages," he said.
"They are radicals in the original and strictest meaning of the term. They want to return to the roots ... to the time of Mohammed and his companions, when Islam first emerged into the world.
"They do not want to return to the tradition as it existed prior to the decline of Islam in the 17th and 18th centuries and the rise of the West, for that by their lights would leave Islam in something like the same boat it has been in ever since -- weak and inglorious. They want to return to a time when Islam enjoyed great vigor, the time of its infancy and youth."
Therefore these radicals should not be considered traditionalists or medieval but really modern ideologues, akin to communists and fascists from whom they have borrowed copiously.
"From the modern frame of reference, radical Islam most resembles fascism with its peculiar combination of utopianism and a romantic longing for the past, especially an imaginary or invented past."
In contrast to those very early days of Islam, the Middle Ages were an era when "Christians, Jews and Muslims were more and less in something of the same boat, sharing a common medieval perspective," Fradkin said. "One aspect was a common intellectual inheritance and a discourse which transcended religious boundaries."
Fradkin explained that the greatest minds of Judaism, Moses Maimonides (1135-1205) and Judah Halevi (1075-1141) "were extremely serious and learned students of the greatest Islamic thinkers and theologians."
Jewish thought subsequently influenced medieval Christian divines, such as Thomas Aquinas, and then modern thought.
He pointed to the centrality of the Bible. "The way it was and even had to be interpreted plays a major role in explaining how and why medieval Western or Christian thought ultimately served as a kind of launching pad for modern thought," he continued.
"It had a great deal to do with the question of freedom, which is so central to the difference between contemporary America and radical Islam."
Fradkin pointed out, "The Bible offered, according to Maimonides, more than adequate evidence of a presumption in favor of human freedom."
This presumption resulted in the Western mind's ability to probe and to examine; it resulted in the debate between theology and philosophy over the role of human freedom and reason, Fradkin suggested.
Within Islam, too, there was a significant intellectual debate, but it was framed in a different way, he went on. The struggle between the teachings of two medieval Muslim sages had a powerful and formative effect on Muslim thought to this day.
One was the mystic al-Ghazzali (1058-1111), the other Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), founder of Wahhabism, a sect of which is the state religion of Saudi Arabia.
"Wahhabism appears to maintain the medievalism of Arabia and to extend to wherever possible and to use whatever means available, including of course terrorist violence," according to Fradkin. "This ambit now includes Muslim countries as far apart as Nigeria and Indonesia and also Muslim communities living in the West, including in this country."
Thus blocking each other are two key Muslim schools of thought: "One has a mystical orientation which affirms the private and the individual but lacks correlative public teaching, which could inform political life."
The other one -- Wahhabism -- "has a trenchantly political teaching which offers little elaboration of the freedom of the individual," Fradkin said
Here, then, lies one answer to the question Fradkin had asked at the beginning on his lecture:
"Why, when most of the world acknowledges that liberal democracy is THE success story perhaps of all time, are there substantial numbers of people who detest us, detest that success and the conditions -- democracy, freedom of religion etc. -- which give rise to it?"
Of course, Fradkin allowed, it had taken the West centuries and many mistakes to produce this success. Therefore it was not surprising that the Muslim world has not joined the West in this endeavor.
But now, he said, there is no time to lose.