“The world has never seen anything comparable to the contemporary West’s blend of achievement, timidity, and guilt, of hugely superior power matched by a deep reluctance to use it.“Daniel Pipes
“History is not predetermined to proceed always in a progressive, ever better direction. If the current course of events and ideas is not reversed, the coming age will have abandoned its assumptions of open trade, open expression and the ideal of government by consent of the governed. Political Islam will be comfortable with itself at last” Charles Hill
We live in a world of bizarre, almost incomprehensible, extremes. Eighty of the richest people in the world possess as much wealth as 3.5 billion of their poorest fellow citizens and the top-earning one percent own as much as the remaining 99%. While the West is slowly building a new world out of the technological explosion of post-modernity violent ideological movements behead and mutilate their opponents out of a zeal for Allah and hatred for a world of plenty which has passed them by. Criminal elites. power-hungry demagogues and ideological fanatics, sometimes in symbiotic alliance, are subverting weaker states all over the world from South America to Africa, from the Middle East to Asia. Uninhibited by the moral values which permeate the “enlightened” West, such anti-modern forces are free to use naked brutality, blatant lies and subtle propaganda to confuse and intimidate their opponents.
The comfortable, over-intellectualised and domesticated elites of the West are caught in an agonising double bind. To acknowledge the potential existential nature of the assault on the West implies the need to respond appropriately. That in turn requires the unambiguous characterisation of their opponents as an intolerable “evil”, the embrace of counter-violence as one important mode of response and a rejection of the sympathetic “understanding of the other”which is at the very root of Western ideals of tolerance and human rights. Even more, it may demand personal responsibility by standing up against the dominant consensus of polite silence and meaningless equivocation, or even becoming personally involved in the dangerous business of confronting and fighting violent thugs.
So many are the ingenious means whereby Western elites avoid the need for unambiguous choice. By calling violent Jihadist movements arising in backward, corrupt, clannish, authoritarian, intolerant and fanatical, patriarchal societies simply inevitable human responses to frustration, poverty and exclusion, the threat is converted into a sociological and policing issue, solvable by catering to their alleged cry for human dignity and affirmation and by the minimum and regrettable use of force. In so doing, highly intelligent and ruthless adversaries are infantilised into misunderstood children who, allegedly, will respond to kindly firmness from Western leaders by grasping at all the goodies and ideals of the Western cultures they have been deprived of.
It seems impossible for some world leaders and Western academic and media to imagine that such movements arise from a multiplicity of causes. These may well include poverty, social, technological, cultural and political dysfunctionality but also include religious traditions and beliefs which provide the moral parameters of an alternative world-order; a world-order in which the good people of the West will, optimally, be compelled to submit to the religious tenets of the Islamic world. It seems too difficult for our spokespersons to grasp that whatever the sociological, economic and personal psychological motivations of these terror movements are, they find their justification and motivation in the religious teachings of Islam. By denying, against the insistence of the terrorists themselves, that their doctrines represent the “true” Islam, they absurdly believe that they have now reduced the problem to familiar and manageable proportions.
It is clear that many within the broader religious teachings of Islam reject such claims by the Islamic terror and para-terror movements. But that hardly alters the fact that these movements arise out of the Islamic tradition, use Islamic doctrines as justification for their actions and motivate their followers by dreams of Islamic religious conquest and even world-domination, or by fantasies of a virgin-rich afterlife awaiting martyrs in the great cause.
Does it matter? Does the failure to admit publicly that the great totalitarian threat to the West in the first part of the 21st century comes from within Islam, make it impossible to combat the threat effectively? I think it does because it fails to properly link the various forms and manifestations of the threat and fails to use adequate and appropriate means to combat it. We are already paying for this failure of nerve and insight in the Middle East, Africa and even Europe and eventually will in the USA. Israel is at the vanguard of this struggle, but even within Israel itself various diversionary and evasive tactics are used by a minority to deny or obfuscate the reality of Islamic extremism.
Recognising the nature of the threat is the first essential step but it does not provide all the answers. The West needs to respond adequately while still retaining the essence of its own values. In fact this battle may initiate a debate into which of the various moral movements in the West are worth keeping and, if so, in what form. It could even spark a welcome return to the personal virtues of integrity, personal responsibility, the dignity of work and social solidarity. We require the thinkers and philosophers to take a more critical look at some of the current fashionable moral crusades and craft better ones to take us further into an uncertain and precarious but potentially glorious future.
Below is a take on this issue by a political scientist of considerable experience.
Why Political Islam Is Winning
A“trick question” often contains the answer to itself, and the best trick questions start a cascade of other consequential questions and their answers. The question imposing itself on us today is this: “How and why is it that political Islam appears to have failed wherever it has been tried in the modern world? Is there a basic incompatibility with modernity?” Something like that question was asked during the course of the Cold War about Marxist Communism; often the answer was, “Because it hasn’t been tried yet.” That same answer might also apply to “political Islam” or Islamism, but then produces the further question: What is political Islam? The answer to this would certainly be that the “Islamic State” (aka “The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham”—ISIS, or, ISIL when alSham is translated as “the Levant”), which appeared in mid2014, is political Islam. Secretary of State John Kerry pronounced on that: “There
is literally no place for their barbarity in the modern world.” And that cycles us around to the question: “What is modernity?” All of which leads us to the most dramatic question of all: Political Islam may well
be incompatible with modernity, but what if it is modernity that is failing in the world today, while political Islam is succeeding?
All this is not a medieval-like matter of “angels dancing on the head of a pin” as it may first appear. The answer to the primary question about political Islam’s compatibility with modernity is that political Islam’s purpose is not only to be
incompatible with modernity but also to oppose it, demolish it and replace it in every regard. The modern world, despite all its various attributes, may be summarized as a series of intellectual movements, institutional achievements and generally accepted ideas that across the span of the past three or four centuries have slowly shaped a basically workable and common international order: the Renaissance concept of humanism with the individual person as “the proper study of mankind”; the Reformation, which opened a vast arena for public activity beyond religious control; the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which designed a procedural international state system available to all states regardless of their particular political form of governance; the United Nations as “the world organization of its member states” and a network of international institutions and associations; and the idea of democracy or democratization—initiated by the philosopher Kant in the 18th century—which in the postCold War period entered the international state system as a “procedural” addition supported in U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Merely to list these characteristics of the modern international system is to explain why political Islam considers it incompatible. The reasons can be elaborated, but three main factors repeatedly have been cited in their statements: First, the concept of the state is itself at odds with Islamist views. As one fighter with ISIS forces said, when asked what his army’s purpose was, “We are opposed to countries.” Second, democracy can be interpreted in Islamist terms as an
abomination to the faith in that it requires legislation on behalf of a sovereign people, whereas Islamists must adhere to Sharia law alone; and third, that the premise of all modernity’s dimensions is multifariousness, diversity as desirable
while Islam is doctrinally uniate, requiring oneness in all things. And to these incompatibilities may be added the findings in 2002 of the United Nations’ Arab Human Development Report, which described Arab societies as failing to meet
modern standards for human rights, the acquisition and exchange of knowledge, and freedoms for women. So, taken all together, political Islam stands in stark opposition to the established modern world order.
Two phenomena of recent decades have weakened the condition of the international system. Every Arab-Islamic regime has governed its territory as a state and has been accepted as legitimate in its statehood by the United Nations
and international diplomacy. Yet all the while, the regimes ruling these states—as hereditary monarchies, military juntas or one party autocrats—have failed to be responsive to their people’s needs and aspirations, a reality that produced the 2011 Arab Spring, which was quickly crushed by the old regimes or replaced by ideologically radical Islamist forces, all leading to the Hobbesian “war of all against all” now ravaging the region. So the modern international state system is barely surviving across this large swath of the world.
And as the Middle East now has come to a turning point whether it will shore itself up within the modern state system or fall out of the established world order and become adversarial to it, the system itself has deteriorated drastically across the past several decades. The Cold War did substantial damage to it, damage that was not repaired because uniquely in the history of major modern warfare, no postwar settlement was attempted by the surviving side. Then the 1990s became a time of belief in “the peace dividend,” implying that international order could stand a time of “deferred maintenance” and pretty much coast forward on its own strength.
And anyway, the intelligentsia of the West began to declare that the building blocks of the system—the state, sovereignty, defense, etc.—were outmoded concepts. The European Union redefined itself as a benign form of antiinternational
system, taking sovereign powers away from the states and giving them to something that never became clear; the EU today is neither a state nor an empire and has deprived itself of much of its international influence. And the recent American message to the world that the United States will be comfortable stepping back from world leadership in order to do “nation building at home”— one of President Barack Obama’s favorite phrases—has left the international
system not only leaderless but also rudderless. In the rhetoric of the corridors of the Kremlin and the pages of strategic journals in Beijing, the line has emerged that the international state system that may be traced back to 1648, and has been coextensive with the modern era itself, is coming to an end. Russia and China have been moving, sometimes brutally, sometimes step by step, to prepare for the new world order to come, which will be a world of big powers without the constraints of universality that the modern system assumed; in short, we are still in a paradigm whose time seems to be going, but we don’t seem to know it or don’t much care.
The United States has shown itself to be politically unable to deal with the challenge posed by political Islam and what needs to be done to meet it. The states of the international state system, including those of the Middle East, are vertical
entities whose greatest threat across modern history has come from horizontal ideologies capable of mobilizing masses of people in a fighting cause that transcends state loyalties; communism was that, and so is Islamism. Each is a fully
comprehensive doctrine that rejects the nation state as the fundamental entity of world affairs and aims to replace it with a one-size-fits-all, top down form of global governance.
American strategies since Sept. 11 have failed to grasp this reality: “counterterrorism,” or “The War on Terror,” could only try to confront a tactic, not an ideology; “counterinsurgency” conceivably could start to shore up troubled states
but was soon abandoned by the U.S. on the grounds that “we don’t do nationbuilding” ; the emergence of ISIS was the “horizontal” movement’s breakthrough—an army that could take and hold territory. The U.S. does not at present have an Authorization for the Use of Military Force that comprehends this reality. Thus when President Obama called for American military action to degrade and destroy ISIS, he could only use the word “terrorism” to describe the challenge faced. Here is a case where strategists from Confucius to Thucydides to Machiavelli understood that actions cannot be successful when “words lose their meaning” and their connection to what needs to be done.
At the same time, in the assemblies, cafes and faculty lounges of the West the intelligentsia of the post-Cold War period declared the state to be outmoded and sovereignty irrelevant; we were to welcome a new era of nongovernmental
activism, of diplomacy without need of strength, of global issues that would transcend small-minded national interests. The European Union epitomized these yearnings as it proceeded to dismast national ships of state and amass
bureaucratic powers in a supranational entity whose nature was and remains undelineated. The very word “modern” seemed unserious, giving way for a while to “postmodern,” which then, in turn, went out of fashion, leaving the age we
inhabit with nothing but “contemporary” to describe our time and its meaning.
Much of the current situation can be summed up by the recent U.S. decision to recognize Castro’s Cuba, autocratic government and all. The international state system, beginning with the Treaty of Westphalia, set out a small number of
procedural requirements that a state would have to sign onto in order to be a member in good standing of the system. What political form the state chose for its internal governance didn’t matter to the stewards of the system. The United States and the course of the major wars of the 20th century, following the thinking of Kant and Tocqueville, increasingly made the case that democracy was not just one of the many political forms of governance around the world but was itself a necessary “procedure.”
In subsequent years, however, the political propensities of the intelligentsia and the variety of troubles encountered by the democratizing states and the American fought wars of the early 21st century caused a reappraisal. Francis Fukuyama, the political philosopher who at the end of the Cold War had declared “the end of history”—meaning that democracy had finally been recognized as the best form of governance—later recanted his position. China, which always had been grudging about the Westphalian system, stepped into the new century with its “China Model”—in other words, an open economy and a closed political system. Other autocratic or dictatorial states followed in that direction. All this has given the Cuban Communist Party, otherwise on the ropes, new life and confidence. The Cuban regime sees itself following the China Model, having long since perfected all the mechanisms needed to gather in for themselves every dollar coming into Cuba while pretending to pay the Cuban people with pesos.
The United States thus had a choice of scenarios: either the ever popular rosy scenario in which a change in American policy would sweep away the old Fidelistas as a thriving capitalist tourist economy modernizes the island, or watch
the Cuban Communist Party use the change in U.S. policy to keep doing what it has been doing, only now with ever more U.S. dollars to vacuum up for party commissars and cadres. So President Obama changed the policy—and here’s the
kicker—declaring with satisfaction that it would enable Cuba to follow the China Model, something he suggested would be a victory for U.S. policy. But, as we have seen, China and Russia and their one party state blocs increasingly are opposed to the idea of democracy as the best “procedure” for the international system and have begun to position themselves for the next world order, which will not be procedural and internationally legal but hierarchical and power dominated, very likely no longer a “Free World” at all.
So the modern age, and modernity itself, may be coming to be seen as just one more in the historic sequence of time periods measured by the rise and fall of cultural themes, systemic structures and leading intellectual and moral actors. Put in terms of Thomas Kuhn’s theory about The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the modern “paradigm” may be close to the point of jumping to a quite different way of viewing and understanding the world. If so, political Islam, or Islamism, may only now be approaching the moment in history, at least since the seventh century, when it can experience “compatibility” with the age it inhabits: the “Greater Middle East,” as it was called at the opening of this new 21st century, would become a radical sphere of influence unto itself, dedicated to the down-fall of non-Muslim structures of governance.
As the stewards of the Modern Age stand back, abdicate or just lose interest, newly energized forces push outward. Russia and China each see, and speak fairly openly of, the paradigm-to-come, which is taking the shape of the premodern
“sphere of influence” world, defined by forms of suzerainty in which Asia will be Beijing’s domain and Eastern Europe and South Central Asia under the sway of Moscow. Modernity’s linchpin, the “equality of state” doctrine, would be cast aside. John Kerry’s statement about ISIS having “no place in the modern world” was oblivious to the possibility that the modern world itself may be coming to an end.
History is not predetermined to proceed always in a progressive, ever better direction. If the current course of events and ideas is not reversed, the coming age will have abandoned its assumptions of open trade, open expression and the ideal of government by consent of the governed. Political Islam will be comfortable with itself at last.
Charles Hill is a diplomat in residence and lecturer in International Studies at Yale University.