A&L links to reviews of two new books – one on the nature of Al Quada and the other on the nature of man.
In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Raymond Ibrahim, editor and translator of The Al Qaeda Reader, argues that
Whatever one’s position in regard to the “war on terror,” understanding the ideas of our enemy is both a practical necessity in wartime and a fundamental liberal value. It is my hope that both sides in this bitter debate will profit from a deeper acquaintance with these works. In any case, it simply will not do to dismiss Al Qaeda as an irrational movement without ideas.
As an intern at the Library of Congress, he assessed masses of untranslated material from the Middle East pass through; most were not aimed at the West, but were, instead,
theological treatises, revolving around what Islam commands Muslims to do vis-à-vis non-Muslims. The documents rarely made mention of all those things — Zionism, Bush’s “Crusade,” malnourished Iraqi children — that formed the core of Al Qaeda’s messages to the West. Instead, they were filled with countless Koranic verses, hadiths (traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), and the consensus and verdicts of Islam’s most authoritative voices. The temporal and emotive language directed at the West was exchanged for the eternal language of Islam when directed at Muslims. Or, put another way, the language of “reciprocity” was exchanged for that of intolerant religious fanaticism. There was, in fact, scant mention of the words “West,” “U.S.,” or “Israel.” All of those were encompassed by that one Arabic-Islamic word, “kufr” — “infidelity” — the regrettable state of being non-Muslim that must always be fought through “tongue and teeth.”
Dennet generally keeps up on scholars like Pinker. With a new book out, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature, the linguist is making the rounds. A&L links to Saletan’s “The Double Thinker” in the New York Times and Norm Geras to the somewhat obtuse Guardian interview with Oliver Burkeman, “Basic Instincts.” Geras in “The Denial of Human Nature,” notes the value of a belief in human nature, one we share:
It’s one obvious basis for a philosophy of universal human rights – the idea that we share a common human nature, and by virtue of it common needs, common capacities and fundamental interests. These interests ought to be protected. Granted, the fact that a common human nature provides the intellectual basis for a justification of universal rights does not by itself show that there is such a common human nature. But there is one – as any open-eyed consultation of historical, anthropological and cultural evidence will vouchsafe. We can argue about what traits it includes and what traits it doesn’t – a really important area of argument – but the denial of there being any human nature at all is wasted breath.
Of course, these two book reviews, which seem so different, lead us to gratitude for the eighteenth century, so fascinated by and absorbed in defining human nature, so certain it existed and that defining it was important, so reverent toward the divine spark they believed animated all of us, so dedicated to ensuring the kind of rights innate in our nature were to be respected and allowed expression. And so, we hear Abigail addressing John and Hamilton & Madison arguing it out. And as John tells us how much he longs for his family and how much more important that tie is, he acknowledges the importance of his broader (if weaker) loyalty to what he describes as all of our species.