Friday, September 20, 2002

Islamists are Moderns

Francis Fukuyama and Nadav Samin have wondered recently whether Islamism may be a modernizing force. Absurd as this sounds, it would be a pity to dismiss their important analysis of what is occurring in the Muslim world, especially regarding its dissatisfaction with the West, because of their willingness to entertain the old possibility of the "cunning of history." Wherever you stand on Hegel, you should read their piece.

First of all, what is an "Islamist," as opposed to a Muslim, and what is his quarrel with the West? Many things, serious and silly, have been written and said recently on "why they hate us." No analysis comes close to Fukuyama's and Samin's fascinating and chilling answer to this question: the Islamists are using (at least some of) our ideas against us.

The Islamists are not "Islamic fundamentalists;" rather, they are moderns who have borrowed ideas from "20th century European doctrines of the extreme right and left." First, Fukuyama and Samin trace al Qaeda's pedigree to Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, who, impressed by Italy's fascists and their ideas of unquestioning loyalty to a charismatic leader, Mussolini's injunction to "believe, obey, fight," and the Nazi emphasis on the youth wing, warned his followers (correctly) not to expect encouragement from traditional Islamic authorities. On the left, Fukuyama and Samin cite Maulana Mawdudi, a Marxist journalist who founded a revolutionary movement in Pakistan in the 1940s and was the first to attach the adjective "Islamic" to the Western terms "revolution," "state," and "ideology," as an inspiration for our antagonists. Right and left eventually merged in Sayyid Qutb, chief ideologist of the Muslim Brotherhood after World War II who wrote "Signposts Along the Road" calling for a classless society in which the "selfish" individual of liberal societies would be abolished.

For a long time, none of this European-inspired challenge to liberalism gained any religious support in the Muslim world. Not until the Iranian revolution did Islamism gain religious respectability. Moreover, the fact that the Iranian revolution bridged the traditional chasm between Shiites and Sunnis betrayed its challenge to, rather than conformity with, Islamic history and custom. Quoting Ladan and Roya Boroumand, Fukuyama and Samin conclude, "The aestheticization of death, the glorification of armed force, the worship of martyrdom, and faith in the propaganda of the deed" are the tell-tale signs of modern totalitarian doctrine rather than traditional Islam.

Everyone should read the balance of Fukuyama's and Samin's piece which is devoted to the question of whether Islamism could, like fascism and communism before it, serve inadvertently as a modernizing force. But the most important part of their piece is this "taxonomic" or classification question regarding Islamism. Although they argue that it points beyond itself to the question of possible modernization or "destructive creation," the taxonomic anlaysis by itself points to the perennial weaknesses or defects of liberal democracy. The modern (that is, not from the point of view of throne and altar) dissatisfactions with those defects were first articulated by Rousseau and extended by his followers on the left and right, Marx and Nietzsche and their many epigones. The left says that liberal democracy is not democratic or egalitarian enough and that its citizens are selfish; the right says that liberal democracy is boring and that it lacks depth and seriousness. We should remember these things not to flagellate ourselves or to undercut our patriotism (the resurgence of which is a refreshing thing to see) but to understand where we are most vulnerable and not be surprised when attempts are made to exploit us there.

Unfortunately, the kind of education required to understand the foundations of liberal democracy and the source of its antagonists is precisely what the better universities are unwilling to provide today. Witness Collin's piece below. If we are going to engage in self-flagellation, it ought to be over this. But this is another story for another time.


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