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Jewish World Review Jan. 11, 2002 / 27 Teves, 5762

Neal Gabler

Neal Gabler
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Mythos vs Logos: An Eternal War of Mind-Sets -- EVERYONE seems to recognize that the war launched against the United States on Sept. 11 is something new. Unlike past conflicts, there is no identifiable enemy army, no state to bombard or invade, no territory to conquer, no clear objective the attainment of which would allow us to force surrender and declare victory.

In truth, we have no idea what our enemy hopes to accomplish. That is because this strange and awful conflict isn't ideological, as the Cold War was, or religious, as the brush-ups in Northern Ireland are, or ethnic, as the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo were. This may be the very first war to be fought over epistemology. As such, it may be terrifyingly intractable. Epistemology is the branch of science and philosophy that concerns knowledge, specifically, how we know what we know.

There are many "ways of knowing," but the religious historian Karen Armstrong, in her recent study of religious fundamentalism, "The Battle for God," identified two primary systems that have special relevance for the current conflict. One she called "mythos." With its roots in ancient times when gods, heroes and other fanciful forces provided the answers for the questions of existence, mythos relies on intuition, superstition, emotion, tradition--on non-rational ways of knowing. You could call it a form of art.

The other system is "logos." As the name implies, logos relies on reason and logic, on what we call rational ways of knowing. You could call it a form of science.

Our new war is a battle between mythos and logos.

Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and their Muslim fundamentalist allies live within mythos and have subordinated themselves to it. They see themselves not as individuals with wants and needs, which is a relatively modern notion, but as operatives of Allah. For them, everything is religion, everything faith. In fact, they don't acknowledge any other legitimate way to look at the world. They are essentially premodern and ahistorical, believing only in what has been passed down to them by Allah; in the madrasas, the Muslim religious schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, students are strictly forbidden from learning anything except the Koran, that is, anything except mythos. When zealots talk about bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age, it is futile not only because the Taliban are already there physically but because they are also there epistemologically.

The spiritual and the rational can coexist, as they do in almost every society, but Muslim fundamentalist terrorists don't see it that way. As premodernists, they believe the two mind-sets are mutually exclusive; their grievance is that their way of thinking is being destroyed by the inundation of Western influences, which globalization has made it impossible to escape. They don't want our reason; they demand blind faith. They don't want progress; they demand tradition as prescribed by the Muslim fundamentalist clerics. But since they aren't pluralists and since they don't believe in tolerance, personal choice or persuasion, all of which are rationalist notions, their only option is to eradicate logos itself before it eradicates them. Their mission is to rescue the world from rationality and restore it to religion as they interpret it.

In effect, they are attempting to turn back the clock to the time when reason wasn't empowered, and they are trying to purify the world of its putative secular taint, which is why they are always invoking the name of Allah to justify their crimes. Terrorism isn't their way back into the world, as it is for most terrorist groups trying to win recognition or gain some sort of advantage. For Bin Laden, terrorism is a way of destroying the world that has marginalized him.

Since it has had little to do with Bin Laden or his minions, the United States seems to have gotten entangled in this struggle largely by association. America is called the "Great Satan" by its enemies in the Islamic world because, as the predominant Western power, it is both the symbol and the agent of logos. America exports secularism in its popular culture, in its scientific and technological achievements, in the rationalism of its economic institutions, in its higher education, which has attracted students from around the world, including Islamic countries, and in the realpolitik of its foreign relations, which depends on a cold calculation of self-interest. It is the latter that seems to aggrieve Muslim fundamentalists the most; they believe that America supports corrupt regimes--those that suppress fundamentalism--in the Islamic world out of its own narrow needs.

Perhaps the single greatest expression of the American mind-set, though, is the country's system of government. To devout Muslim fundamentalists, one of the most abhorrent effects of rationality has been the growing secularism that has separated religion from power throughout most of the world. They insist that Islamic governments be based on the sharia, or Islamic law. But nothing could be farther from the American system, which has become a beacon to much of the rest of the world. Born of reason, America, through its economic, intellectual and military might, is the logos capital of the world, which presumably is why it is the primary target for the Islamic fundamentalists. Weaken it, and you weaken the source, chief beneficiary and leading example of Western rationalism. Weaken it, and you strike at the heart of rationalism.

It is the epistemological nature of Bin Laden's type of terrorism that makes it so insidious. When one is fighting for territory, ethnic dominance or even ideology, the terms of battle are relatively clear. In this new war, our enemies have many targets, virtually anything and everything American, but unlike other terrorists whose aims are obvious if no more legitimate, these terrorists have no targets of their own to hit and no stated objective, no demands to be satisfied or denied. More, the enemy isn't easily identifiable.

Unlike other terrorists who can be denoted, the new enemy is a way of thinking. And because this enemy is mythos, a non-rational way of knowing, one cannot negotiate or reason with its proponents. Indeed, the seeming irrationality of the terror, the randomness of it and its disconnection from any goal, is precisely why it is so unsettling. It doesn't make any sense.

That is also why one must take the long view of our current war, as our enemies no doubt do. The terrorists aren't likely to destroy logos, but neither are we likely to destroy their mythos, even if we wanted to and, as rationalists, we don't. Instead, they will, in intelligence parlance, keep sending "sleepers" here, infiltrators who pretend to share a modern, secular way of thinking about the world as a way of extirpating it. And we will continue to use all the rationalist tools at our disposal to root them out, though we are fighting fanatical epistemologists, not just terrorism. We may catch Bin Laden and we may smash terrorist cells around the world, but, unfortunately, that isn't likely to end the battle over which way of knowing will prevail. You can measure this war not in weeks or months or years. You can measure this one in centuries.

JWR contributor Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, is author, most recently, of " Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality." Comment by clicking here.


© 2002, Neal Gabler