Is Romney Right About Culture?

Governor Mitt Romney seems to have stirred up some controversy by the remarks he made to a gathering in Jerusalem the other week. Contrasting Israel and the Palestinian territories, he said, “You notice a stark difference in economic vitality. And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.” This is not the first time Romney has said such things. In his 2010 book, No Apology, Romney declared that “culture makes all the difference” in regard to differences between Israelis and Palestinians. Romney attributes the larger point on the significance of culture to Harvard Professor David Landes’sWealth and Poverty of Nations.

Of course, howls of protest went up over his statement. Back home, Romney tried to explain his position in NRO online. He wrote that:

“During my recent trip to Israel, I had suggested that the choices a society makes about its culture play a role in creating prosperity, and that the significant disparity between Israeli and Palestinian living standards was powerfully influenced by it. In some quarters, that comment became the subject of controversy.”

Mitt Romney in Jerusalem

One of those quarters was the Palestinian one. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Mr Romney’s remarks were racist and betrayed his ignorance of the region and the conflict in the Middle East. Actually, it is this criticism that betrays ignorance. The truth of what Mr Romney said can be easily seen if the topic is broadened out to a comparison of the Judeo-Christian West with the Arab Muslim Middle East.

First of all, culture is not based on race; it is based on cult. Therefore, cultural distinctions are not a form of racism. Since cultures are based on cults, their differences can be expressed in how they define man and God. Culture is constituted by the answers to the most profound questions in life: who is God; who is man; and what is the relationship between the two? The answers then seep into and affect every aspect of life. Different answers constitute different cultures.

Let us then consider the differences in Judeo-Christian civilization as compared to the Arab Muslim one. In the first case, Judaism and Christianity share the view that man is made in the image and likeness of God. In Islam this statement constitutes blasphemy. Nothing is comparable to God, certainly not man, who is not made in God’s image. For the Jew and Christian, part of God’s image in man is man’s rational faculty. It is the divine origin of reason that gives it its impregnable status and provides for the origin of the inviolability of conscience. For a Sunni Muslim, reason does not have this status, nor is there a basis for such thing as freedom of conscience (indeed, there was not even a word for conscience in Arabic).

In Judeo-Christian civilization, God is Logos or reason. His reason is manifested in the rational order of creation, which is apprehensible by man’s reason. In the dominant form of Sunni Islam in the Middle East (Ash’arism), Allah is not reason, nor is He constrained by reason in any way. He may choose to behave reasonably, or He may choose not to. Reason does not provide any criteria by which to understand God, who is without or beyond reason. God is pure will and power. He is an unreasoning, willful God. Creation is therefore not invested with a rational order.

In the Judeo-Christian West, man, through his reason, can come to know what is good and what is evil, what is just and what is unjust. Moral knowledge is accessible to all men, which is why they can be held morally accountable for what they freely choose. In Sunni Islam, this knowledge is not available. Man is incapable of knowing good and evil through reason. The great teaching of the Ash’arites is “that there is nothing obligatory by reason” or, as stated by Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111), “no obligations flow from reason but from the Sharia.” Nothing you know by your reason can possibly tell you anything about the goodness or evil of what you might contemplate doing. There is no such thing as moral philosophy. This knowledge is only available through revelation. This is why Sharia is so important to Muslims, and why a significant number of them consider human legislation illegitimate, as it can only express the will of man, as against the will of God.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is considered the first cause of everything, but He constitutes creation in a way that allows for the operation of semi-independent secondary causes, ie, cause and effect in the natural world. In other words, when a rock falls, the direction of its fall is determined by the forces of gravity, not directly by God. For a Sunni Ash’arite Muslim, this is not so. There is no cause and effect in the natural world. God is not only the first cause, but theonly cause. It is, therefore, God who makes the rock fall and who determines the direction in which the rock moves. The rock could just as well have fallen upward or sideways, and it may do so next time, depending on God’s will. Since God can will anything, the direction in which the rock moves is unpredictable. However, God seems to observe certain habits, and his habit appears to be to have rocks fall downward. But it is only that – a habit, and has nothing to do with natural laws.

Here is the problem with this view of things: if there is no continuous narrative of cause and effect tying events together in a comprehensible way, the world becomes incomprehensible. Each thing that happens is a discrete event, directly willed by God, which has nothing to do with the events that precede or follow it. There is no connection whatsoever – outside of God’s volition in placing these events in an arbitrary sequence. There is no natural sequence. This makes reality unintelligible. As a result, the Muslim mind becomes prey to wild conspiracy theories as substitutes for rational explanations.

The denial of causality has very practical consequences in Muslim life. For instance, between 1983 and 1984, weather forecasts were suspended by the Pakistani media. This was because Muslim scholars had complained that the prediction of rain lies outside of what can be lawfully known to man. If God is unpredictable, and He directly causes the weather, how can one forecast it? The attempt to predict the weather is a blasphemous presumption.

Here is a more recent example in the same vein from the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram. Its founder Mohammed Yusuf proclaimed that “All knowledge that contradicts Islam is prohibited by the Almighty.” Like the weather. Yusuf said, “There are prominent Islamic preachers who have seen and understood that the present Western-style education is mixed with issues that run contrary to our beliefs in Islam. Like rain. We believe it is a creation of God rather than an evaporation caused by the sun that condenses and becomes rain. Like saying the world is a sphere. If it runs contrary to the teachings of Allah, we reject it.”

The broader consequence of the denial of causality is the dearth of science in the Sunni Muslim world. The denial of natural law, occasioned by the Ash’arite conception of God as pure will and power, removes the very objective of science from the Muslim mind. Since the effort of science is to discover nature’s laws, the teaching that these laws do not, in fact, exist obviously discourages the scientific enterprise. There are people in Saudi Arabia today who still do not believe man has been to the moon. This is not because they are ignorant; it is because accepting the fact that man was on the moon would mean also accepting the chain of causal relationships – gravity, thrust weight, trajectory, etc. – that put him there, which is simply theologically unacceptable to them.

However, the devastation extends far beyond science, and here we come to the broader truth of Romney’s observation. Were it not for sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab world would find itself at the bottom of the scale in every category of human development – productivity, per capita GDP, healthcare, education, literacy. The grim statistics are laid out in the UN Arab Human Development Reports, all written by Arab scholars themselves. Why is it that a country like Spain can by itself produce more than the entire Arab world? Or how can little Finland export more than the Arab world, when oil exports are removed from the equation? How come Greece translates five times as many books a year as the whole Arab world does?

The 2003 Report states, “In being connected with and at the same time contradictory to knowledge, Arab intellectual heritage nowadays raises basic knowledge problems.” Indeed, it does. The report is bold enough to refer to “sometimes a disregard of reality” in the Arab world. This disregard, with its devastating consequences, is the direct result of a deformed idea of God that disallows causality, reason’s ability to know reality, the intelligibility of the world, and the integrity of creation. It has produced a dysfunctional culture. A poor economy is one effect of this dysfunctional culture, which is why Romney was correct in pointing to it as the culprit. He is spot on that “culture makes all the difference.”


Robert Reilly has worked in foreign policy, the military, and the arts. His most recent book is The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis.

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Robert Reilly has worked in foreign policy, the military, and the arts. His most recent book is The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. This article courtesy of MercatorNet.

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