Prof. Antony Sullivan, a member of the Minaret of Freedom Institute’s board of advisers, spoke at the International Institute of Islamic Thought on the motivations of the creation of the Circle of Tradition and Progress. It was a spiritual and civilized response of Western and Islamic scholars and intellectuals to Prof. Samuel Huntington’s power-driven speculations on the future, seeking to create a new basis for cooperation and dialog. The group was the product of a meeting held in London that ran from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. that included Muslim scholars including Bashir Nafi, Abdul Wahab El-Massiry (a former atheist), and Western scholars including Lou Cantori and Dr. Sullivan. Dr. Sullivan considers the fact that agreement on a text was reached by the end of the day to have been a miracle.
The group represents the view that the modernity project that stems from the European enlightenment has had spectacular technical achievements, but too many negative side effects. Implicit in it is the naive insistence that human fulfillment can be achieved on a strictly material basis and the belief that man can achieve this through reason alone, without any form of divine assistance. The circle aims at progress everywhere, with a scholarly critique of materialism and secularism, an aim to achieve accountable democratic government, basic liberty and human rights, and an economic system that is both liberal and humane. It seeks a reconciliation of reason and religion, of man and God, and of peoples to one another. It is premised on a belief in the transcendence of God and the guidance of revelation.
Dr. Sullivan noted that a commitment to reform has been at the heart of the Islamic project, a rectification of the balance between man’s quest for material success and the reality of God and spiritual matters. At the same time Westerners have recognized the religious imperative and respect for tradition in Thomas Aquinas, Russell Kirk, and Gerhart Niemeyer. The Islamic quest for reform and the Western respect for tradition together provide a basis for cooperation and progress. It requires a rejection ofÂ “Manichean formulations” that impede cooperation between Islam and the West.
Prof. Sullivan rejected the glib definition of traditionalism as the view that nothing should be done for the first time. His concept of traditionalism is not an ideology, but a philosophical system that is the opposite of ideology. The Anglo-Saxon variety is a judicious preference for the past and an inclination to preserve, combined with a willingness to adapt, adjust, and initiate. In the words of Russell Kirk, culture comes from root “cult.” Religion is vital to civilization. Robert Nisbett, Eric Voegelin and T. S. Elliot are examples of thinkers who have belonged to this tradition.
Who are the Western traditionalists today? Prof. Sullivan argues that “Someone named Usama bin Ladin killed the halaqa and George W.Â Bush nailed the Coffin shut.” He asks, “Was Huntington right?” or is it time to reconvene the circle? The American traditionalist or (as they used to call it before the Neocons made the term into a dirty word) conservative movement, was destroyed by 9-11. Patriotism became jingoism. People like Robert Spencer were provided a platform to attack Islam and feed into the worst aspects of the Huntington thesis. Despite some improvements in the past three to four years, we all still struggle with notions of “us and them” that are a fact of life that will not make our work any easier.
Perhaps the recent developments have made the circle more necessary, but I believe its revival will require an expansion of its inclusiveness, religiously, politically, and modally. A resurrected Circle of Tradition and Progress should include Jews as well as Muslims and Christians; it should include libertarians or classical liberals as well as paleoconservatives; and it should not be afraid of activism. When the the government impedes free exchange of ideas by unsubstantiated restriction on the travel of some scholars, we should demand an explanation. The people who made a laughing stock of themselves when they banned the musician Yusuf Islam from America on national security grounds should be equally challenged when they persecute intellectuals.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute