December 05, 2004

What Neocons Could Learn From Hegel

Praktike observes a new theory making the rounds:
I noticed a new argument being formulated by [AEI neoconservative] Reuel Marc Gerecht... that in order for democracy to work in the Middle East, the fundamentalists have to take control, obviating the need for radicals to use violence, and allowing Islamism to discredit itself just like it did in Afghanistan and, increasingly, Iran.
This isn't a bad theory, though it needs some tweaking. The first step, I think, is to view Islamic fundamentalism as a radical response to the secular dictatorships of the Middle East—in Egypt, in Iraq, in pre-1979 Iran, in Saudi Arabia—rather than as an outgrowth of Islam proper. That is, Islamic fundamentalism took such a reactionary form precisely because it has been thrust into a reactionary position, especially under the Nassers and Mubaraks and Assads of the world who have marginalized or even persecuted religion. In order for Islam to stop taking such reactionary forms, then, it needs to find a public outlet—and the "moderate" Islam espoused by the an-Najaf hawza in Iraq could provide just that.

If I understand praktike, though, Gerecht is proposing something slightly different, saying that radical Islam should be allowed to govern, so that it will discredit itself and hence give way to secular reformists like the "third wave" movement in Iran. Strangely enough, they aren't advocating any such thing in Palestine. But no matter! The real problem here is that when this new, non-Islamist movement comes to power, it could in turn marginalize Islam, which could then once again take radical forms in the sidelines. And we're back to square one. We've seen a very attenuated form of this "cyclical effect" in the United States, with the radicalized Christian Right coming back with a vengeance in the 1980s after a long period of (relative) secular dominance.

Note: This also explains why I'm against funding secular education in the Middle East, at least on the order that John Kerry proposed. Some secular funding is of course fine. But I think there are real dangers in driving a fresh wedge between modernity (in the form of secularism) and the Islam preached in the madrassahs. We've been down that route before, with Nasser or Shah Palavi. Better to try a Hegelian synthesis.

Many scholars will cite Turkey as a triumph of secularism over Islam; I don't know enough about Turkey's history to draw historical parallels. Still, the key conditions that seemed to lead to the secular revolution in Turkey in the 1920s—a brilliant leader in Ataturk, an interventionist military—seem to exist only in Pakistan, and nowhere else. (And Musharraf is a good deal less brilliant than Ataturk was.) I doubt that sort of thing will work anywhere in the Arab world. Turkey also has had the carrot of EU membership to help blunt the rise of Islam in recent years. Algeria is another example, though Algerian-style civil war may not appeal to everyone.

For a symposium on how Islam can converge with democracy, rather than give way to it, see Khaled Abou El Fadl's brilliant essay in Boston Review (my previous employer!).
-- Brad Plumer 1:48 AM || ||