Modernizing Islam

This letter by Martin Kramer, in response to the article by Francis Fukuyama and Nadav Samin, “Can Any Good Come of Radical Islam?” published in Commentary, September 2002, appeared in Commentary, December 2002, pp. 17-18. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

What happens when a really big reality (like 9/11) collides head-on with a really big idea (like Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history”)? Inevitably, the idea crumples to absorb the shock. Let us survey the wreckage.

In “Can Any Good Come of Radical Islam?” [September], Mr. Fukuyama and his co-author Nadav Samin concur that Islamism is a destructive force that warrants comparison with Communism and fascism. But, they write, 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.

If. And if only. In Francis Fukuyama, Hegel springs eternal, and it was Hegel who passed this judgment early in the 19th century: “Islam has long vanished from the stage of history, and has retreated into oriental ease and repose.” The persistent refusal of Islam to do just that remains one of the principal flaws of “endism,” from Hegel to this day—that is, for as long as the modern West has rubbed shoulders with Islam.

After some two centuries, the evidence is compelling. Islam has been an inexhaustible power cell for scores of movements that have defied the values of modern liberalism. From Mahdism to bin Ladenism, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the Taliban, Islam continues to generate new and potent antidotes to the infection of the West. All of which suggests that the power of radical Islam (like Islam itself) is its ability to mutate—to adapt itself to ever-changing circumstances. Today it ingeniously exploits the very modernism that it seeks to thwart. Just when you think it is outmoded—as many analysts thought 30 years ago—it suddenly reappears in some completely new (and often more virulent) form.

Radical Islam, Messrs. Fukuyama and Samin speculate, “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.” 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.”

The problem is that in actual practice, real Muslims have treated their would-be reformers very shabbily; the space between Islamism and the authoritarian state remains a leaderless void, which neither side has an interest in filling. The reformers, who have always been a small minority, are today even worse off than they were a half-century ago: today, terrorists threaten to kill them. By all means, let us pray five times daily for an Islamic Reformation. But let us admit that there is no Luther in sight who could inspire one.

The danger of the Fukuyama-Samin argument is that it could encourage complacency. They really do not come down very far from the starry-eyed Middle East experts. One recalls in particular the 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.” Messrs. Fukuyama and Samin would just switch the adjectives around: whatever the current intent of Islamist movements, their ultimate function is a liberalizing one. It is 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.

As for the authors’ idea that Islamist “independent action” might “lay the groundwork of a true civil society,” this sounds precisely like the argument of John Esposito and a raft of “experts” who tell us that we should weigh the good social deeds of groups like Hamas. Only in the absence of any other mediating institutions can this illusion be maintained. Islamism is a poor man’s civil society, and a poor substitute for it, since it lacks a concept of tolerance. There is no evidence it can develop further, and ample evidence suggesting that it cannot.

In any case, the Fukuyama-Samin thesis cannot be proved or disproved in any near term, and it is pointless to debate it. Its policy implications are vague at best. And it does not change the fact that at this moment in time, it is not Islamism but “endism” that (to quote Hegel) has “vanished from the stage of history”—even if it has cropped up in the pages of Commentary.

Middle East Quarterly
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania