Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Islamic Fundamentalism's Original Challenge

John Coumarianos over at Innocents Abroad has expressed some doubt that the Islamic fascist attack on the modern liberal world, as recently described by Paul Berman in his essay on Sayyid Qutb, is really all that impressive philosophically, and really demands the sort of original response which Berman urges (and sees Bush has having failed to provide): namely, to recognize that today's Islamic terrorists "speak insanely of deep things....[meaning that] antiterrorists had better speak sanely of equally deep things." Coumarianos writes that "Berman is naive to think that Qutb is philosophically original in any way....Qutb's European-inspired anti-liberalism and anti-rationalism is an old story. Everyone's been saying that liberalism lacks soul (ho-hum) since Rousseau -- and nearly all without Rousseau's political caution and intellectual breadth and depth. [Berman's piece]....is entirely too enthralled with Qutb's variation on the theme of dissatisfaction with modernity. Berman says that he wants more of a philosophic defense of liberalism, but one wonders whether he's just simply dissatisfied with liberalism."

I'm no expert on Islamic thought, and I wouldn't want to judge Qutb's whole philosophy on the basis of Berman's essay. However, I've read enough to know that Qutb's radical ideas--while they may arguably parallel some elements of the the "old European story" of anti-liberalism--have a little bit more originality and heft than that. To quickly assimilate the complaints of radical Islam into long-standing arguments about modern liberalism (and by so doing, suggest that the intellectual challenge they pose is unsubstantial and easily answered by turning to our own tradition) is, I think, profoundly wrong. Roxanne Euben has written at length on Islamic radicalism, and she has shown, I think quite persuasively, that the "anti-liberalism" of radical Islam is grounded in, ultimately, a unique espistemological critique, not a moral or political one. While modern rationalism has, of course, been much attacked in the history of Western philosophy, those attacks have only in the last century or so, with the rise of post-Nietzschean criticisms of Western metaphysics, really become aligned with the sort of communitarian or otherwise antiliberal complaints which Coumarianos associates with Rousseau. (This is, incidentally, a rich and complicated problem for communitarians like myself: what, if anything, is "postmodern" about our critique of philosophical liberalism, and what, on the other hand, is actually part of the philosophical tradition of the modern West itself?) Islamic fundamentalism shares more with other (e.g., Christian) fundamentalisms than it does with any other particular "antiliberal" tradition (Rousseau, whatever else he was, wasn't a "fundamentalist," and hence can provide us with little aid in understanding Islamic fascist complaints with the West in that sense). But neither can it be understood simply by hauling out Nietzsche's and Heidegger's "postmodern" challenges; fundamentalism really is its own, original, animal. To quote from another one of Euben's essays, one included in an excellent book which you should all buy:

"The antihermeneutic foundationalism central to [Islamic] fundamentalist political thought is...incompatible with the postmodern suspicion of [epistemological] foundations. Western critics of modernity, like postmodernists, emphasize the dark side of rationalism, and insist we attend to what the post-Enlightenment vision of modernity has excluded and precluded. Contrary to postmodernists, however, voices such as....Qutb['s] contend that there are or can be bases on which to re-establish 'foundational' meanings necessary for living and living well; they thus seek an overarching unity to overcome the fragmentation of knowledge seen to characterize the contemporary world. Yet like postmodernism, fundamentalists' paradoxical relationship to modernity represents an attempt to move beyond modernity in a way that is simultaneously parasitic upon it....a dialectical Aufhebung of modernity rather than an a priori negation of it."

Coumarianos points to a piece by Francis Fukuyama that might be said to make a point similar to this, but he misses the original spin which the fundamentalist, epistemological challenge puts on the whole matter. Really, Qutb's challenge--like that of all fundamentalisms--does deserve our deep consideration as a new intellectual development in its own right; one that, as I have argued in an essay published elsewhere, the discipline of theory could potentially learn a lot from.