Secularism and Capitalism vs. Islam

Tibor R. Machan

Western Ways Will Lead To A Better Life

Since shortly after September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush has been consistent in claiming that it is not Islam per se that hates Americans and targets us for destruction, but rather some renegade versions of that faith. In time it became an automatic refrain on the Right that Islam is peaceful and gentle, except for some of the crazier versions of it.

Yet, as subsequent work has shown—see, especially, Robert Spencer’s Islam Unveiled (Encounter, 2002) and Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism (Norton, 2003)—much of what the Qur’an says supports the idea that it is Islam as such, not its fundamentalist or extremist varieties, that finds grave fault with the United States and much of the West.

This view sees Islam as a fiercely otherworldly theology, one that sees no difference between what is due to God and what is due to Caesar. State and church are ideally the same, as they have been in Iran since the Shah was ousted and the ayatollahs seized the reins of government. Elsewhere, too, the secularization of countries with sizable Muslim populations has been arrested—even Turkey, the most secular major­ity­Muslim nation, hasn’t quite managed to rid itself of the threat of fundamentalism; moderate Egypt continues to have difficulty managing the problems fundamentalism engenders.Of course, there are competing versions of Islam, each with its distinctive nuances. But there is also a core difference between Islam and the West: Islamism takes the supernatural world far more seriously, both in theory and practice, than do most prominent contemporary Christian institutions. One important consequence of the Islamic position is that the state is seen as a direct instrument for regimenting virtue within its realm. Virtuous behavior is the goal; in sharp contrast to modern Christianity, Islam has no commitment to the idea that the faithful must voluntarily choose to embrace moral virtues or, indeed, the faith itself.

This latter element of Christianity is arguably responsible for the coexistence between Western secular-­liberal public philosophies and the West’s various theological systems. Not that things have always been that way; the truth is quite the contrary. Although most Roman Catholics today insist that the Holy Inquisition was an aberration, it is clear that acceptance and compliance with the doctrines of the Catholic faith were at one time thought to be achievable via coercion. (Although, even then the idea was to persuade people to accept the faith—via coerced confession, albeit with methods that left lit­tle room for genuine free choice.) Today, most Western faiths have made some kind of peace with the liberal political tradi­tion, one that developed, after all—say, in the writings of John Locke—in large measure by thinking through the relationship between state and church and tolerance in general.

At bottom, however, Islam and Christianity do in fact share their mutual devotion to the supernatural realm, spiritualism, the afterlife, and everlasting salvation. They both cherish the idea that life on Earth is but a stepping stone to a much richer kind of life, one completely unattached to material real­ity. “Materialism” is, after all, held contemptible under both schools of theology, though Christianity manages some kind of mishmash to reconcile its kind of spiritualism and mate­rialism. (Islam, of course, has managed to achieve a similar reconciliation in the practical lives of many Muslims—no one can argue in good faith that all upper­class Saudi Muslims are living primarily, let alone exclusively, spiritual lives!)

Much of this has been discussed, sometimes in numbing detail, since September 11, 2001. But one important aspect has managed to go almost unmentioned: the ironic fact that one charge leveled against the United States by bin Laden and his cohorts is substantially correct. Capitalism is intimately connected with the materialist, naturalist, and secular aspects of the West.

Consider the simplest example: if no afterlife exists for which we are divinely required to prepare, there is no point whatever in believing that earthly riches are superfluous. Quite the contrary: if there is no life hereafter, then living well during one’s sixty­odd years on Earth is all one can reasonably hope for. Striving to achieve the good life by deploying one’s tradeable assets, as the rationale of capitalism prescribes, is indeed a worthy undertaking.

To put the matter even more succinctly, the World Trade Center towers did, in fact, accurately symbolize the essence of what distinguishes Islamism from Western liberalism, when both are rightly understood. It is by means of commerce that human beings living their relatively short but only lives can make the most of their existences. It is by means of the riches commerce so efficiently provides that we are able to purchase food, travel, and to facilitate a good deal of all the rest, such as family life, friendship, scholarship, art, and so forth. The poor are right to lament being poor because, as even Karl Marx noted, they have nothing more to look forward to—no afterlife in which they will find full consolation for their earthbound misery.

Capitalism is arguably—especially after the notorious collapse of the socialist experiment of the Soviet Union—the political­economic system that best serves the goal of enrich­ing ourselves in this life. Many secularists are loath to admit this—indeed, many humanists, starting with August Comte and the early Marx himself, held out hope for some kind of viable anti­capitalist political economy: if not central­-planning socialism, then some substitute such as market socialism and communitarianism. (Even Ludwig Feuerbach’s version of materialist humanism promised to translate Christian ideals into secular terms, thus betraying itself for the reactionary doctrine it was.)

Islamists correctly see this as fantasy. They recognize in capitalism their true nemesis—one that Christianity, they realize, is too feeble to subdue, tame, or in some other way set on the right track.

The uncomfortable news for secular humanists is that, while they do represent the most advanced philosophical thinking about human life, many are still clinging to a defunct political economy in which the supreme importance of prosperity—in blunt terms, profit-­making—is denied or even scorned. For them the worst imaginable news is that Ayn Rand was right.

Capitalism is the right political­economic system for a nat­ural species such as humanity, one in which individual mem­bers, in contrast to those of other natural species, must forge their own plans in life, including their own system of commu­nity life so as to flourish to the highest possible degree as the kind of beings that they are, namely human. There may be no other insight with as much long­term potential to overturn the Islamist worldview.


Tibor R. Machan teaches at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University. He is the author of Putting Humans First (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

Tibor R. Machan

Tibor R. Machan is a Hoover research fellow, a fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, a professor emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University, and holds the R.C. Hoiles Endowed Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University


Western Ways Will Lead To A Better Life Since shortly after September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush has been consistent in claiming that it is not Islam per se that hates Americans and targets us for destruction, but rather some renegade versions of that faith. In time it became an automatic refrain on the …

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