April 1, 2005 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

CS Lewis on Osama bin Laden

The Bush Administration argues that the spread of democracy in the Middle East is the only way to defeat the terrorist ideology of Osama bin Laden. President Bush may be right. But radical Islam has a great appeal. For true believers, the Islamic vision of a pure and righteous society makes democracy look like a fool's errand. For them, a free election is the enemy of spiritual devotion.

US foreign policy could benefit from a little more realism-the faith-based realism of thinkers such as CS Lewis.

In the years following the Second World War, Lewis wrote a great deal about the problem of evil in the modern world. In fictional works such as the The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters, for example, he suggests that hell is populated with lots of "religious" people. They're often the characters who can't tolerate anyone whose spiritual ideals differ from their own.

The lost souls in Lewis' works sound a lot like the extremists in Iraq: the wickedness of other religions is their gospel; self-righteousness is their liturgy. As the demonic character of Screwtape explains it, "Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar."

Another insight from CS Lewis seems even more on point-what he called the passion for the "Inner Ring." By this he meant an unhealthy desire to belong: a dark ambition to move in the right circles and to win praise from the right kinds of people. Lewis saw this as a kind of spiritual longing gone sour.

And researchers such as Marc Sageman of the University of Pennyslvania have found that many terrorists come from relatively stable family backgrounds. But, for various reasons, they feel "isolated, lonely and emotionally alienated"-perfect candidates for an Inner Ring.

In Lewis' science fiction novel, That Hideous Strength, we encounter an aspiring university professor who is drawn into a circle of absolute evil. It happens when, in a moment of laughter among his peers, he agrees to do something he knows is wicked. "Of all earthly powers," Lewis writes, "[this one] is strongest to make men do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad men."

If CS Lewis is right, then winning the war on terror begins by accepting a very religious idea, the proposition that man does not live by bread, or democracy, alone. The Bush Adminstration's democracy agenda for the Middle East won't, by itself, defeat Islamic radicalism. They must think harder about the spiritual reasons for its appeal.

Mr. Loconte is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and editor of "The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm" (Rowman & Littlefield).

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

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