Friday, March 28, 2003

Islam, Democracy, and Fundamentalism


Check out this wonderful round-up of views on the prospects for democracy in the Muslim world, including essays by such well-known writers as Fouad Ajami and Kenneth Pollack. (Thank heavens for A&L Daily: how any of us bloggers could find and highlight great nuggets of information like this out of the daily flood of news without the help of the A&L gang, I can't even guess.) There's not much I can personally offer on their various takes on the compatibility of Islam and democracy, either philosophically or in relation to the needs and circumstances of the contemporary Arab world, since I'm not an expert on either Islam or the Middle East; the best I can do is just add a couple of addition voices to the mix: if you want to be informed on these matters, be sure to also read Bernard Lewis and John L. Esposito, two very reputable voices who also happen to profoundly disagree with one another.


However, one thing I can add is regarding the broader issue of Islamic fundamentalism, and fundamentalism generally, as conceived as a challenge to the modern (Western, liberal) world. As I mentioned in an earlier post, John Coumarianos over at Innocents Abroad is doubtful that there is, as he puts it, "a genuine religious element in Islamism" which presents a particular, perhaps even original, challenge to the liberal order. He furthers his argument with a reference to an article by Adam Wolfson which I haven't read, and concludes that "the religous claims of the Islamists may be less genuine than Wolfson thinks." For Coumarianos, "late modern thought," with its almost antinomian commitment to "groundless" principles--in other words, nihilism--is a more likely explanation for recent developments in radical Islam than "traditional religion." "How does Wolfson account for the 9/11 hijackers frequenting strip clubs?" he asks rhetorically.


The implication, I suppose, is that if Islamic fundamentalists don't perfectly live their religion, then their religion must not really be motivating them, at least not any more than are any number of other (no doubt unconsciously held) indulgent, self-satisfying, "postmodern" attacks on the delicate compromises and accomplishments of liberal civilization. And if that is the case, well, we simply need to recognize that the tradition has adequately defended those accomplishments before, and will certainly do so again--no need, in other words, to feel overly threatened by this radical, antiliberal posture: we've survived Rousseau and Nietzsche and Heidegger, so we'll survive this. (This may be a profound misreading of John's claim, but it's what I see him saying. My apologies if I'm getting it all wrong.) I think this attitude, however, betrays a lack of thought regarding the relationship of the liberal achievement to our own tradition. The Western liberal order (usually, but not always, including democracy) is at least partly the fruit of secularization, a process which was for a long time understood rather straightforwardly in Enlightenment terms: people become secular, and hence less religious and more tolerant and (ergo) more capable of self-government, as their mastery over the environment increases, as scientific and technological accomplishments lessen their dependency upon traditional authorities and forms of life, and as new political and economic doctrines encourage individual diversification. According to this theory, complaints with modernity are at least partially complaints about secularization, complaits about the loss of "meaning." Thus did Rousseau attempt to recreate the world of religious intensity through his general will; and thus did Heidegger, in the end, say that only the appearence of a new god could save the modern world. When we look at Islamic fascism in this light, we see just one more nihilistic attack on the secular world, and particularly on its most delicate and wonderful consequence: the liberal compromise which, when rightly understood, allows for liberty and virtue, individuality and belief. But, should you doubt the secularization thesis--not just its particulars, but its whole terminology--then this analysis breaks down. The rise of fundamentalism within the modern world--Christian fundamentalism at home, and Islamic fundamentalism abroad, even in states thoroughly exposed to the possibilities and promises of the modern ethos, such as Algeria and Turkey--poses just such an analysis-breaking challenge. Of course, much of the literature on Islamic fundamentalism makes it simply a feature of elite nationalist ambitions, and thereby assimilates back into an understandable reaction to modernity. But I think that if fundamentalism and nationalism are disentangled somewhat, you'll see that there is more going on. (I disagree with this reading of nationalism too, but I've made that clear in earlier posts.)


The best work that is being done towards such a disentangling today is Charles Taylor's; his current research is all about understanding the relationship between "secularity" and "the public sphere" in the modern West (see here and here for examples of his thinking). Taylor's great contribution (which he admits is not wholly original) is recognizing that the "secular public sphere" within which liberalism is possible is not just a "spatial" accomplishment, but a "temporal" one as well. The modern West developed a way of thinking about time, about temporality, which shaped our sense of what may, and may not, be constituted as a meaningful relationship between persons and events. This wasn't, in Taylor's view, an act which banished God from the public square (though that is what was generally assumed, and consequently has arguably taken place) so much as one which changed our language by which God's relation to the nation, to the people, was "enframed." For example, rather than seeing oneself as primarily "acting out" a meaningful, temporally foreordained role, one derives meaning from temporally open-ended, concurrent relationships. Among other things, this new kind of enframing, even (or perhaps especially) when simplistically misunderstood, made the modern nation-state possible. But fundamentalists, whose diversion from the contemporary world is at least as much espistemological and temporal as moral, are working out (in a highly untheoretical way, to be sure, but still...) an alternative to that public sphere. This is why I've written elsewhere that political theorists, especially those who (like myself, and Taylor) hold to a basically communitarian philosophy--who, though we advocate liberalism, dislike the liberal order being reified (in our view, falsely) into the whole ontological framework of our philosophical tradition--ought to look seriously at fundamentalism. It is not simply complaining about or attacking liberalism; it is bringing out from within the tradition behind liberalism an examination of that public enframing, an examination of how one may speak about (to use one of Bernard Lewis's phrases about the perspective of Islamic fundamentalism) the community being "God's polity" while still being and remaining an modern individual. To be sure, much of this fundamentalist speaking will be profoundly conservative, even illiberally so (the condition of women under the Taliban made that crystal clear). And hence those of us sympathetic to liberalism would want to work towards a liberalizing of these communities: a "liberal fundamentalism," just as we want a liberal Catholic community, a liberal Islamic nation, a liberal Mormon space, and so forth. But this can only be accomplished if we are willing to recognize all the ways in which Islamic fascism is not "just" another nihilistic, sour grapes complaint about all sorts of modern goodies which may have passed the Muslim world by. The religious argument of today's conservative Muslims--including radical Islamism--is an important one, with echoes across the Western intellectual landscape. If Muslim nations do accept liberalism or democracy or both (whatever role Western nations play in that acceptance), it will hopefully be on terms which acknowledge, on some level or another, the multiplicity of ways to be (temporally, epistemologically, and morally) "secular" within any given community, a multiplicity that was, perhaps, always in some sense there in our modern tradition, but one which is also, nonetheless, contra Coumarianos, an idea which hasn't really ever been seen as itself before.