Thinking (too) big thoughts about Islamism

Francis Fukuyama (with the help of one Nadav Samin) has produced a think piece for Commentary with the provocative title Can Any Good Come of Radical Islam? It’s interesting primarily as evidence for what happens when a really big reality (like 9/11) collides head-on with a really big idea (like Fukuyama’s “end of history”). Inevitably, the idea crumples to absorb the shock.

Fukuyama, who is nothing if not persistent, concurs that Islamism is a destructive force that warrants comparison with communism and fascism. But it might also be a modernizing one—it might, despite itself, strip away the traditional constraints that have prevented Muslims from modernizing. And if Islamism, in turn, can be stripped of its ideology, then perhaps it might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Quote:

The Islamists clearly hope to reunite religion and political power one day, which would be a disaster. But they are learning—and inculcating—habits of association and independent action that, if somehow divorced from their radical ideology, might yet help lay the groundwork of a true civil society.

And again, on the fact that Bin Laden, a layman, dared to issue a fatwa (calling, by the way, for killing American civilians):

The mere fact that bin Laden was willing to cross this line shows the extent to which Islamism has undermined traditional Islamic legal authority. But a line crossed in the name of waging all-out war against the West may yet be crossed in the name of healthier purposes.

Such developments “may yet help pave the way for long-overdue reform. If so, this would certainly not be the first time that the cunning of history has produced so astounding a result.” And so we are back on the road to the “end of history” after all.

So has “endism” successfully absorbed the shock? I’m not persuaded. In Fukuyama, Hegel springs eternal, and it was Hegel who passed this judgment (early in the nineteenth century): “Islam has long vanished from the stage of history, and has retreated into oriental ease and repose.” The sheer refusal of Islam to do just that remains one of the principle flaws of “endism,” from Hegel to this day—that is, for as long as the modern West has rubbed shoulders with Islam. In theory, of course, Islam might be reformed into irrelevance. The late Ernest Gellner even opined that while Islam “did not engender the modern world, it may yet, of all the faiths, turn out to be the one best adapted to it.” But in actual practice, real Muslims have treated their would-be Luthers very shabbily; the space between Islamism and the authoritarian state remains a leaderless void, which neither side has an interest in filling.

The danger of Fukuyama’s argument is that it could encourage complacency. He really does not come down very far from the starry-eyed Middle East experts. I think in particular of Georgetown political scientist Michael Hudson, who once told a congressional committee that “whatever the ultimate intent of Islamist movements, their current function is a liberalizing one.” Fukuyama would just switch the adjectives around: whatever the current intent of Islamist movements, their ultimate function is a liberalizing one. It’s a short distance from this point, to the argument that we should welcome Islamist seizures of power, so as to speed up the inevitable process of regeneration. And Fukuyama’s idea that Islamist “independent action” might “lay the groundwork of a true civil society” sounds precisely like the argument of John Esposito (who’s also scrambling to fix his crumpled fender).

In any case, Fukuyama’s thesis can’t be proved or disproved in any near term, and it is pointless to debate it. Its policy implications are vague at best. And it doesn’t change the fact that at this moment in time, it isn’t Islamism but “endism” that (to paraphrase Hegel) has “vanished from the stage of history”—even if it still crops up on the (unlikely) pages of Commentary.