Skip to main content

George Weigel on his new book ‘Faith, Reason and the War Against Jihadism’

DENVER, Colo. (Denver Catholic Register) - Denver Catholic Register columnist George Weigel, one of America’s foremost public intellectuals and a prolific author, was in the Denver Archdiocese last week for a lecture. He spoke with the Register about his new book, “Faith, Reason and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action,” (Doubleday, 2007) which explores the threat posed by global jihadism and what we must do to protect against it.

PAPAL BIOGRAPHER - George Weigel, one of the nation's leading Catholic intellectuals and author of

PAPAL BIOGRAPHER - George Weigel, one of the nation's leading Catholic intellectuals and author of "Witness to Hope," a biography of Pope John Paul II, discusses his newest book, “Faith, Reason and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action” (Doubleday, 2007).

Q: Why did you write “Faith, Reason and the War Against Jihadism”?

I wrote this small book because it seemed to me that six years after 9-11 many Americans still do not understand the nature of the war that had been declared upon us, the sources of this aggression against the United States and indeed against the whole West, and I thought we lacked a bipartisan strategy for coping with this. So in a very small book I tried to address all three of those deficiencies in our national understanding as a contribution to the 2008 campaign and, hopefully, something that will be of use to the next administration, whoever it might be.

Q: In the book, you identify 15 lessons you say the United States should have learned as a result of 9-11 about jihadism, about ourselves and about what must be done to ensure a future safe for freedom. What is the single most important lesson Americans should take away from 9-11?

I suppose the single most important lesson is that we are in a conflict with what I call in the book “an existential enemy,” by which I mean not an enemy who seeks simply territory or treasure but an enemy who seeks to replace our civilization and way of life with his civilization and way of life. Defending the West, defending Western civilization, requires us to deepen our understanding of why religious freedom, civility and tolerance, persuasion rather than coercion in politics, are all moral goods that we can know by reason and that we should defend. If we think of the good things of Western civilization as simply pragmatic accommodations, we won’t have the moral strength to defend them. So in addition to understanding that something is out there which believes that the way of life we lead is an offense against God, we have to have answers to that challenge that can be understood by people of all faiths and indeed of no faith.

Q: You break your 15 lessons into three categories — Understanding the Enemy, Rethinking Realism, and Deserving Victory — what should we absolutely understand about jihadism and what should we understand about realism in foreign policy?

In the book, I define jihadism as, quote, “the religiously inspired ideology which teaches that it is every Muslim’s moral duty to use any means necessary to compel the world’s submission to Islam.” That’s the first thing we have to understand — what is this? And, to put it another way, what this is, what jihadism is, is the marriage of a very stringent and in many ways distorted concept of Islam to nihilism, to a cult of death and destruction, in which the murder of innocents is understood to be a good thing in advancing the cause. In terms of realism in foreign policy, I think a Catholic understanding of that term would be that prudent and wise policy begins with seeing things as they are but does not stop there, it also imagines in a prudent and creative way how things can change. So a Catholic realistic optic on world politics would see things as they are but would not conceive that that is all that things can ever be. For example, in the book I discuss, following the lead of Pope Benedict XVI, the kind of tough-minded, interreligious dialogue that would help the development within Islam of a Muslim case for religious freedom, civility and tolerance. That’s a very difficult thing to do under present circumstances, that’s one part of realism; but that some are trying to do it and that it is a project worth pursuing would be the “don’t leave things the way they are” side of the equation.

Q: Explain what you mean by “Deserving Victory.”

This phrase comes from a poster that was all over Great Britain during the Second World War; it’s a picture of Churchill pointing his stubby finger at you and saying, “Deserve victory.” What he meant by that of course was being the kind of disciplined people, the kind of self-sacrificing people, who can deserve to win against another existential enemy. What I mean by that is that a renewal of American and Western culture is essential in this long-term struggle against the jihadist vision of the human future. A country that exports billions of dollars in pornography and highly violent films is not in an especially strong position to recommend its way of life as morally superior to others. A country which is not willing to gain the language skills, the knowledge, the cultural awareness and the theological awareness to understand the character of the enemy is unlikely to create prudent policy or, frankly, to prevail over the long haul. We have to take the time and trouble to understand the ideas that lie behind the jihadist project because this is fundamentally a war of ideas. And if we are going to match bad ideas with good ideas we have to know what the bad ideas are and we have to renew and refresh our own understanding of the good ideas, the true ideas, the truths on which our civilization rests.

Q: The challenges outlined in “Faith, Reason and the War Against Jihadism” are sobering, yet the book ends on a hopeful note, asserting that U.S. leadership in the war is an opportunity for self-renewal, as well as an opportunity to serve freedom’s cause and the cause of life throughout the world. Expand on that if you will.

Take a central point in this controversy, in the civilization of the West religious freedom is a human right built into the human person that must be acknowledged by any just state. This human right to religious freedom includes the right to convert — to change one’s faith if one comes to a different and presumably better understanding of the truth. These ideas are regarded as not only false but as offenses against God by contemporary jihadists. We have to learn to make the argument for religious freedom in a persuasive way and we have to learn how, as a country, to support the cause of religious freedom around the world. That’s an opportunity for national self renewal because religious freedom is one of the fundamental truths on which our own country was founded. So we are getting back in touch with the sources of our own democracy if we take the pursuit and defense of religious freedom in the world much more seriously. If a genuine interreligious dialogue with Muslims who wish to create an Islamic case for civility and tolerance can be built, that itself will strengthen the ties of civic friendship in the United States within the United States and will create new networks of common purpose around the world. So what appears to be a very dark and bleak landscape can in fact from another angle be seen as a great opportunity for national self renewal.

Q: Is there anything you would like to add?

This is a primer; it’s very telegraphic. You could read this in two or three hours. I hope it will send people on a search for deeper and broader knowledge about these problems. Which is a good thing in itself — and which is absolutely necessary if we are going to build the kind of national bipartisan understanding that will sustain us in this contest for the human future for years to come.


This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Denver Catholic Register (, official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver, Colo.



E-mail:       Zip Code: (ex. 90001)
Today's Headlines

Sign up for a roundup of the day's top stories. 5 days / week. See Sample

Rate This Article

Very Helpful Somewhat Helpful Not Helpful at All

Yes, I am Interested No, I am not Interested

Rate Article


Leave a Comment

Comments submitted must be civil, remain on-topic and not violate any laws including copyright. We reserve the right to delete any comments which are abusive, inappropriate or not constructive to the discussion.

Though we invite robust discussion, we reserve the right to not publish any comment which denigrates the human person, undermines marriage and the family, or advocates for positions which openly oppose the teaching of the Catholic Church.

This is a supervised forum and the Editors of Catholic Online retain the right to direct it.

We also reserve the right to block any commenter for repeated violations. Your email address is required to post, but it will not be published on the site.

We ask that you NOT post your comment more than once. Catholic Online is growing and our ability to review all comments sometimes results in a delay in their publication.

Send me important information from Catholic Online and it's partners. See Sample

Post Comment

Newsletter Sign Up

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Jonah 3:1-5, 10
The word of Yahweh was addressed to Jonah a second time. 'Up!' ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
DIRECT me in your ways, Yahweh, and teach me your paths. ... Read More

Gospel, Mark 1:14-20
After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he ... Read More

Reading 2, First Corinthians 7:29-31
What I mean, brothers, is that the time has become limited, and ... Read More

Saint of the Day

January 25 Saint of the Day

St. Peter Thomas
January 25: Carmelite Latinpatriarch and papal legate. Peter was born ... Read More