The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable

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RECOMMENDED READING The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable by Michael Novak (2004, 281 pages)

This is an essentially hopeful book, from both an intellectual and a spiritual point of view, at a time when we need one. It counter-balances such works as Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order and Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man. It should be particularly useful to those CREs who are planning to attend the High Level conference in 2006, "Clash of Cultures: Understanding Life in the Global Village."

Michael Novak currently holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion, Philosophy and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. He won the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1994, and he has received 23 honorary degrees in the U.S. or abroad. He has written 25 books, including The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. He has served as Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and as head of the U.S. Delegation to the Conference on security Cooperation in Europe, under both Democrat and Republican leaders. Political leaders from Margaret Thatcher to Vaclav Havel have recognized him for contributions to our further understanding of current religious, economic and political thought.

His thesis in the current volume is that the racial and religious differences that divide our world into clashing cultures are less important than the primary hunger for personal dignity, and for the personal liberty from which that dignity springs. He applies this cultural inclusiveness in particular to the Islam world.

He states that secularization no longer works and that a truly universal civilization will have to respect the world's great religions. According to the secularization thesis, advanced societies become ever less religious, ever more this-worldly, ever less in need of God. Yet religious fervor and ethnicity seem to be enjoying a vigorous revival. Secularism offers no answer to moral relativism. Novak goes on to state that, seeming to be non-judgmental, secularism applies no break to cultural and moral decline and offers little potential for cultural reawakening, conversion and renewal. Further, secularization has pitifully little to say about the most important things, such as death, suffering, weakness, and moral failure. It says even less about nobility of soul, the love of God, the nothingness and darkness in which God is found, the universal phenomenon of prayer, or any widespread sense of an inner human unity.

The Islamic question is at the center of the book. Can Islam come to terms with democracy? Novak answers with guarded optimism, rejecting the secularist models of Turkey and Egypt. He states that in not a few Islamic lands, during the past century, in the name of secularization, religion has also been brutally suppressed. This enforced secularism did much to turn devout Muslims away from the secular Arab state and to inspire political radicals to cling to religious Islam, which they then twisted to their own political purposes.

There are intellectual resources contained within Islam that may lead to a Muslim defense of several ideas crucial to democracy. These include the dignity of the individual, consultative government attuned to the common good, religious liberty and the fundamental equality of all human beings before God.

Bernard Lewis, the noted Islamic scholar whom Novak quotes, points to several elements in Islamic law and tradition that could assist the development of a form of democracy. Among these are five in particular: Islamic tradition strongly disapproves of arbitrary rule. There is need for continuing consent. …