Robert Reilly

Robert Reilly is the Senior Fellow for Strategic Communication at the American Foreign Policy Council. Reilly has taught at the National Defense University, and served in the Office of The Secretary of Defense, where he was Senior Advisor for Information Strategy (2002-2006). He is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis (ISI Books, 2010).

Instead, We Played Music

Through-a-Screen-Darkly-Popular-Culture-Public-Diplomacy-and-Americas-Image-Abroad-Hardcover-P9780300123388

Reflecting on waning American influence in his country as shown by a recent poll, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble sarcastically said: “Perhaps now more of those in power in the United States will ask themselves: Why is America’s soft power, even though it is the indispensable nation, not so great as to be understood by the dumb Germans?”

Actually, Americans in and out of power have for some time been asking themselves this question, as it applies to the entire world. It seems to puzzle us. Why have we lost our influence? Can’t the great communicators communicate anymore? Or is there something wrong with the message itself?

Cultural critic Martha Bayles has taken on this vexing topic in her new book, Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad. I am primarily familiar with Bayles’ writing through her trenchant film criticism for the Claremont Review of Books. If you would like to see evidence of her skill, read her devastating critique of the recent film version of The Great Gatsby. She not only saved me a couple of hours, but provided an example of film criticism at its best.

Therefore, I looked forward to her treatment of this new subject matter, most particularly U.S. public diplomacy, since I have been involved with it for some years, including in some of the events described in this book. Having already experienced her powers of analysis in one area, I was not surprised that Bayles gets things just about right with this difficult topic. Two big things have changed, she explains. One is the character of American culture, and the other is our self-mutilation in our capacity to conduct public diplomacy.

In short, these two things combined to cause America to lose its influence abroad.

First of all, we need to remind ourselves that the United States was born out of a war of ideas. Our British opponents knew that the essence of the Revolutionary War was a struggle, as the commanding British general Sir Henry Clinton said, for “hearts and minds.” The American Founders knew how to articulate the reasons for which they fought, not only to their fellow citizens, but to those foreign powers without whose help the war would have been lost.

Since then, every major conflict in which the United States has been involved has been a confrontation over the truth or falsity of the proposition that “all men are created equal.” Most particularly in World War II and throughout the Cold War, the United States developed the means through which to communicate its reasons to the world. Under President Eisenhower, these means were gathered into the United States Information Agency (USIA), which had the responsibility of fighting our side in the war of ideas and telling America’s story to the world.

For the most part, USIA did this well. Some of the best parts of the book relate the successes racked up by experienced public and cultural diplomacy officers deployed around the world and through USIA’s broadcasting arm, the Voice of America. The stories of how the best officers operated in the field, some told in their own words, are illuminating. Some of the work involved explaining and promoting the U.S. policies du jour, but a good deal of it took place at a deeper, slower level of inculcating the principles of free government. Wars of ideas are not fought with 30-day plans or six-month plans, but with 20-year plans. USIA was the one institution within the U.S. government from which this could be done. (I was privileged to work there and at the Voice of America for a cumulative 13 years.) It worked. We won the Cold War.

Then came the self-disfigurement. As part of the peace dividend, USIA was eliminated. We lost a large part of our capacity to conduct public diplomacy. Bayles seems to think there was a conscious decision to let the entertainment industry take over “the job of communicating America’s policies, ideals, and culture to a distrustful world.” I don’t think so, at least not at first. It was more a matter of filling the vacuum created by those who, wrongly supposing history had ended with the other superpower’s collapse, cavalierly axed USIA.

During World War II, and for a good deal of the Cold War, America’s popular entertainment did not undermine official U.S. public diplomacy. More likely, it enhanced it by creating an attractive picture of America as a place of moral character, principle, freedom, and optimism. If you have a vacuum to fill, it’s not so bad if you’re pouring in Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Louis Armstrong, or Benny Goodman. However, in the last part of the 20th century, American culture became corrosive. Bayles spends a good part of the book persuasively detailing the toxic decline into violence, materialism, and sexual obsession. To the extent this was attractive to citizens of other countries, it eroded their cultures, too—much to the dismay of those who wished to maintain them.

By the time America was attacked on September 11, 2001, we had lost a lot of friends in the world who thought we were deliberately exporting our culture to undermine theirs. As Bayles relates, they also began to consider us moral degenerates as a result of those exports. I recall being keenly aware of this as I followed the overseas reaction to American behavior immediately after 9/11. It was one of surprise. “Look,” they seemed to say, “Americans, in their grief, are conducting themselves with dignity and resolve. Apparently, they are not all sex-obsessed, overweight, and lost in malls searching for ever-larger home entertainment centers.”

At that time, I was the director of the Voice of America, and I told the staff that this surprise reflected poorly on us as broadcasters who had the responsibility of conveying to the world the true character of the American people. If we had done our jobs correctly, they would not have been taken aback by the admirable American reaction they witnessed. In fact, I suggested, had not this false image been allowed to stand uncontested, even Osama bin Laden might have been given pause before rousing our ire. He was convinced that we would run. He simply got the direction wrong, and we were partly to blame for that by not vigorously counteracting corrosive popular media images with public diplomacy that gave the fuller story of who Americans are.

Commercial media will never do this job because it does not pay. That is why a government agency tasked with this work is necessary. But USIA was gone, and the Voice of America and the other government radios were adrift under the part-time supervision of members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The magnitude of our deficiencies soon became apparent in the two wars we were fighting. Didn’t friends and adversaries alike need to understand why we fight?

Bayles is harsh in her assessment of the strategic communications efforts undertaken by the Department of Defense to fill the public diplomacy void. I was involved in some of those efforts, and I can tell her that they were acts of desperation. Moreover, no one was more keenly aware of the price that would be paid—in their own blood—for faulty “hearts and minds” efforts than members of the U.S. military. I worked in the Pentagon and in the Middle East on some of these efforts, and they were excruciatingly hard to execute for the simple reason that the Defense Department was not designed to conduct public diplomacy. Things I could have done at USIA that would have taken six weeks took me more than two years to accomplish.

It was also at this time that the Broadcasting Board of Governors decided to eliminate VOA’s Arabic service and its substantive content, and replace it with Radio Sawa—a 24-hour mélange of American and Arabic pop music, with two short newsbreaks in the hour. What could possibly have guided this decision? Here is where Bayles’ impression that a conscious decision was made to replace public diplomacy with American popular culture is right on the mark. Not only the chairman of the BBG but, on a separate occasion, the director of its Middle East committee, informed me that “MTV brought down the Berlin Wall.” Quite apart from the absurdity of this assertion, they never explained what wall they were intending to bring down in the Middle East.

The advent of Radio Sawa was met with incomprehension from serious Arab intellectuals. One of them, the most prominent journalist in Jordan, told me that Radio Sawa “is fun, but it’s irrelevant.” It was particularly irrelevant during wartime, but it did cement in the minds of Arabs who were worried about the corrosive effects of American pop culture on their families and societies that the United States was intent on using its pop culture as a weapon against them. The Middle East was desperate to hear from the United States the reasons for these wars. Instead, we played music. As Bayles points out, “The world was starved for solid information about what was happening.”

Again, I am familiar with this from personal experience. I asked one member of the German Bundestag if the American Embassy or any agent of the U.S. government had ever given him our rationale for the war in Iraq. He responded that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s trip to Germany for an annual defense conference was the only time he heard any U.S. official say anything about the subject. When I met with a Danish parliamentarian who was chairman of their equivalent of the foreign affairs committee, I asked if the U.S. Embassy in his country had ever provided him with any information on the subject of the war. He replied, “No, they only come to me to get information, not to give it.” As a supporter of the war, he was stunned when I showed him photos of some of the two dozen Soviet fighter aircraft that had been uncovered in the sand, including a MiG-25 Foxbat. He was eager to use them.

Bayles’ prescriptions for recovering our powers of public diplomacy are generally sensible. She deplores the dumbing down of what we have on offer and the abandonment of foreign elites as the primary audience for our efforts. “Leveling up” the content of cultural diplomacy, she believes, is crucial for resuming the effort to reach opinion leaders. Most of her recommendations for reforming government broadcasting have already been put forward in a reform bill that has passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Because Through a Screen Darkly covers a great deal of territory in its 250 pages, it cannot deal in depth with many of the important issues it raises. Any book that tried to do so would be mammoth. This is more of a critical survey, but nonetheless a helpful one. Only occasionally does Bayles misstep by accepting press reports that were not, in fact, accurate. There is no space to go into it here, but her criticisms of the Office of Strategic Influence, led by Brigadier General Pete Warden, are misplaced. I was intimately familiar with the excellent work of this office, which was unfortunately sabotaged by the Pentagon’s public affairs shop—a place where ideas went to die. Also, Bayles exhibits a somewhat naïve appraisal of the prospects for democracy in the Arab world. Yes, surveys show high levels of support for “democratic ideals,” but those evaporate as soon as the bedrock principle of democratic constitutional rule—the equality of all persons—is introduced.

One last item. Bayles spends time excoriating private American preachers who have gone to Africa to preach against sodomy. She ought to be more worried about the effects of the official U.S. endorsement of homosexuality that is exported through our embassies. For a sample, see the El Mundo story here, with the Gay Pride flag flying over the U.S. Embassy in Madrid. It is a perfect example of the official embrace of our popular culture that will alienate untold numbers of people in foreign countries. Is this really how we should represent ourselves abroad? Anyone struggling to answer this question will appreciate Martha Bayles’ book.

The Formidable Philosophical Obstacles to Islamic Constitutionalism

Sohail Hashmi makes what seems to be a very reasonable case for the compatibility of Islam and constitutional government, and for the role of a reformed sharia as the foundation for the development of constitutionalism today.  However, his case founders upon his not having given sufficient weight to the obstacles to this development, though his prescription for its achievement is essentially correct.

Hashmi contends that “there is no obvious or inherent incompatibility between [constitutionalism] (or, for that matter, democracy) and Islamic political theory,” though he leaves unmentioned the Islamic teaching of dīn wa-dawla (religion and state inseparably combined).   He then more or less admits that, in essence, there is no Islamic political theory.  At the very least, this means that there is no support for constitutionalism, either.

The author bases his case that there is no inherent contradiction between Islam and constitutionalism on the definition of the latter as “adherence to the rule of law.”  However, the problem arises as to the nature of law itself.  Of what kind of law are we speaking?  Hashmi gives a cogent explanation of the differences between the ideas of natural law and divine law as they developed respectively in the West and in the Muslim world.  He rightly notes that Western constitutionalism is founded on natural law, which is grounded in and accessible to reason.  As such, it is something that man can reason about. Law is reason, as John Courtney Murray said, which is why we discuss reasons for laws.

Hashmi believes that the development of natural law was in the face of “a relatively weak idea of divine law in Christianity.”  This is not correct.  Natural law is an emanation of divine law as it was understood in Christianity, as Christianity itself admitted to man sovereignty in the affairs of the world.  There is nothing weak about this divine law; it is, by nature, substantially different from the Islamic understanding in recognizing the legitimacy of the secular sphere. There is a realm within which man is legitimately semi-autonomous and sovereign.  Through his reason, he is called upon figure out how to rule it and himself.  It is precisely the Judeo-Christian theological view of man as made in the image and likeness of God, possessing reason and free will, which led to the notion of inalienable human rights and the establishment of limited, constitutional government to protect those rights.  Christianity reinforced the integrity and status of reason in its revelation in the Gospel of St. John that God is Logos.  In other words, within this view, God speaks to man with equal force through his reason, as He does through revelation.  Reason, therefore, is morally legitimate as a source of law.  What is reasonable is morally good.

It is this theological understanding that is missing from Sunni Islam. Its omission has subverted the development of genuine constitutional government.  Hashmi states that Islam had “a relatively weak idea of natural law, on the one hand, and a robust notion of divine law, on the other.”  This surely is an understatement, though the author goes on to admit that the “higher law of the man-made constitution… has the potential to clash with the higher law of God, the shari‘a.”  He adds that “this clash seriously limits the ability of Muslim reformers to revise the shari’a according to their understanding of what good government and human rights require.”

Hashmi then gives encapsulated accounts of the different schools of Islamic jurisprudence in Sunni Islam, and of the contending theological schools, insofar as their thinking affected the relative status of reason and revelation.  He rightly highlights the struggle between the rationalist theologians, the Mu‘tazalites, who believed in the ability of reason to know morality, and the Ash‘arites, who insisted that moral knowledge comes exclusively from revelation.  The Mu‘tazilites were known as the people of God’s rationality and justice.  The Ash‘arites embraced a God of pure will and absolute power, above or beyond reason.  The author states that the “Ash‘ari position had emerged as dominant in Sunni Islam” by the end of the 12th century.  He then relates that “the ascendancy of the Ash‘ari position had profound consequences for the evolution of Islamic conceptions of law and ethics.”

Indeed, it did.  It resulted in the extirpation of philosophy, moral or otherwise, from the Sunni Muslim world.  These Ash‘arite ideas need to be spelled out more exactly to understand how extremely radical they were, how profound their consequences have been, and how they continue to inhibit the development of democratic constitutional rule to this day, especially in light of the Arab Spring.  To be specific, the Ash‘arites denied the existence of natural law and of secondary causality in the natural world.  There are no secondary causes, only God as the primary cause.  Gravity does not make the rock fall; God does. Fire does not burn cotton; God does.

What about man’s actions?  It is God who acts, not man.  To give al-Ash‘ari’s own example, a man picks up a pen and writes.  It is, however, God who creates in him the will to write, the power to write, and then the motion of the hand to the paper with the pen.  Allah then also causes the figures to appear on the paper as the pen touches it.  The figures appearing on the paper have nothing to do with the pen touching it.  Each is a discrete, separately willed act by God, unrelated to what preceded it and to what follows it.  The famous Ibn Taymiyya wrote that, “Creatures have no impact on God since it is God himself who creates their acts.”  (Needless to say, such a theological view is inimical to the development of democratic, constitutional rule since it obviates man’s free will.)

Without the narrative of cause and effect, reality lapses into incomprehensibility.  Though God seems to observe certain habits, there is no way to tell what might happen next, as God can do anything He wants.

The Ash‘arites also denied that reason is capable of knowing what is good and evil, what is just and unjust.  According to them, nothing is good or evil in itself.  There is no “in itself” in things or acts.  Things have no nature that sustains them or makes them to be what they are from one moment to the next.  Therefore, there is nothing to know from or about them in terms of morality.  They are merely temporary agglomerations of time/space atoms that God chooses to configure in a specific way for the instant.  Then, they pass out of existence.  In the next instant, God may reconstitute things in much the same way, or He may not.  That is entirely up to Him.  Whatever God does is just because He is the strongest, and the strongest gets to decide.  God does not forbid lying because it is evil; it is evil because He forbids it.  At some point, He may change his mind and require it.  God acts for no ends or purposes.  Therefore, man cannot understand what He does or what He might do.

The problem with this metaphysical view, a combination of voluntarism and occasionalism, is that it makes reality unintelligible.  This is on purpose.  For instance, in the early 15th century, Muhammad Yousuf As-Sanusi reiterated this view by emphasizing that “intelligibility has no place at all in it [i.e. in the designation of acts as obligatory or forbidden] rather it can be known only by revealed law – sharia.”  In the metaphysical wasteland that the Ash‘arites created, sharia is the last man standing.  This was their goal.

The Ash‘arite view of reality led to the prevailing principle of Islamic jurisprudence that “reason is not a legislator.”  Reason has not the competence or standing to make laws.  It has no legitimacy.  If reason is not a legislator, then why have legislatures?  God alone is sovereign, which is why only his laws obtain.  This is the basis of sharia’s claim to exclusive rule.

This also helps explain why the constitutions in the Muslim world have not been any more effective than their namesakes were in the former Soviet empire.  Almost without exception, none of them seems to have prevented tyrannical rule.  In addition to what has already been stated, what else has prevented constitutionalism from taking root in a meaningful way?

Most important is the part of Muslim revelation that counters the Judeo-Christian notion that man is made in the image and likeness of God.  Islam emphatically denies any such likeness and considers the proposition blasphemous.  Absent this likeness, however, man has no grounds for the exercise of sovereignty, which as a result belongs exclusively to God.  In Islam, there is no such thing as natural man, as all men are born Muslim.  This doctrine is fatal for the concept of natural law and natural rights that lies at the heart of constitutionalism.

Since for the majority of Sunni Muslims (who are Ash‘arites), revelation (no matter how variously interpreted) is the single source of legitimacy, how likely is it that they will, or can, even consider the ideas that historically have given rise to constitutionalism?  At present, they do not have a theological framework within which to do so. They are in a theological prison.

Hashmi’s idea that the sharia can play the role of natural law in developing Muslim constitutionalism is problematic, to say the least, even though Hashmi is certainly correct in saying that it, at one time, served as the only brake against the otherwise absolute power of the caliph or emir.  The problem is: If the sharia is divine, it cannot be changed.  Since sharia codifies the inequality of men and women, and of Muslims and all others, how could it serve as the basis for a rule of law founded on the equality of all people?

Sharia would have to be de-divinized or historicized to be changed.  It would have to be seen as embodying a moral principle, but contingent on the particular time and circumstances in which it was formulated.  This, in fact, is what the late president of Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, suggested when he said, “… Islamic law is man-made, and thus subject to human interpretation and revision.”

Hashmi thoroughly understands this.  In fact, he states the prescription powerfully: “One of the first tasks in this process is to assert the possibility of natural law and natural rights within an Islamic framework area.  This will require a resurrection and dissemination of the early Mu‘tazili emphasis on ethical objectivism, that is, that all human beings possess a rational faculty – as a God-given faculty – to discern right from wrong and to form moral conclusions on how to order their communal lives apart from reliance on one or another revelation.”  I believe that this is absolutely correct.  The problem is that there are very few places in the Muslim world where one can say what Wahid did and survive.  In the Sunni Middle East today, to call someone a Mu‘tazilite is to him call a heretic.  When the well-known Egyptian scholar, the late Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, suggested that the Mu’tazilite views on the Qur’an needed to be revisited, he was declared an apostate and had to flee Egypt in order for his wife not to be forced to divorce him.

As Iranian philosopher, Abdulkarim Soroush, has said, “You need some philosophical underpinning, even theological underpinning in order to have a real democratic system.  Your God cannot be a despotic God anymore.  A despotic God would not be compatible with a democratic rule, with the idea of rights.  So you even have to change your idea of God.”  The idea of God that has prevailed in the Middle East is a product of the deformed theology of the Ash‘arites: He is a despot.  This is what has to change for true constitutional development to take place.  The problem exists at the theological level and, therefore, needs a theological solution.  As the triumph of the Salafists and Islamists in the Arab Spring elections has shown, this necessary and indispensible change is nowhere on the horizon.  Sadly enough, if only, one hopes, for the short term, things are headed in the opposite direction.  As Azzam Tamimi, the biographer of Rashid Ghannouchi, has put it, “[the real struggle of the future] is going to be about who is Islamist and who is more Islamist, rather than about the secularists and the Islamists.” One can only wish that things were going in the direction that Hashmi recommends.

In response to: Islam and Constitutionalism

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