Western civilization exerts unprecedented influence. Science commands the intellectual loyalty of elites around the world. Western strands of Christianity have enjoyed extraordinary missionary success in Africa and Asia. Communism—a Western ideology—migrated to China, destroyed its Confucian culture, and over the past generation has evolved into a materialist and technocratic mentality far more indebted to Bentham than to Mencius. Globalization is an American-led project, and it has gone from strength to strength. Yet, at the apogee of the West’s cultural power, we are riddled with guilt and doubts.
This paradox of triumph and doom has preoccupied me for more than a decade. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, many friends insisted that Islamic terrorism posed an existential threat to the West. The term “Islamo-fascism,” coined by Norman Podhoretz, conjured an image of Osama bin Laden invested with the power of 1930s Germany, the most dynamic European nation of that period. And it suggested that radical Islam possessed the potency of modern nationalism, which from Napoleon to Hitler was the world’s most transformative political ideology. I remember challenging Midge Decter soon after 9/11. I insisted that the greatest threat to the West was . . . the West. After a few seconds of silence, she agreed.