Francis Fukuyama: the ‘end of history’ revisited

07 May

Francis Fukuyama has recently departed considerably from his earlier neoconservative Bushite confidence. The Arts & Letters Daily has drawn my attention to the new edition of The End of History, an extract appearing on Open Democracy. Below is what he has to say about Islam, but do read the whole essay.

Particularly since the 11 September 2001 attacks, many people have argued that there is a fundamental tension between Islam as a religion and the possibility of the development of modern democracy. There is no question that if you look around the world, there has been a broad Muslim exception to the overall pattern of democratic development that you see in Latin America, in Europe, in Asia, and even in sub-Saharan Africa. So people argue that there may be things in Islamic doctrine, such as the unity of religion and state, that serve as insuperable cultural barriers to the spread of democracy.

That the problem stems from Islam itself as a religion seems to me extremely unlikely. All of the world’s major religious systems are highly complex. Christianity was once (and not that long ago) used to justify slavery and hierarchy; now we see it as supportive of modern democracy. Religious doctrines are subject to political interpretation from one generation to the next. This is no less true of Islam than of Christianity.

There is tremendous variation in the political practices of countries that are culturally Muslim today. There are several reasonably successful democracies in Muslim countries, including Indonesia, which has made a successful transition from authoritarianism after the crisis of 1997; Turkey, which has had two-party democracy on and off since the end of the second world war; Mali, Senegal, and other countries, such as India, that have large Muslim minorities. Furthermore, Malaysia and Indonesia have sustained rapid economic growth, so that the obstacle that Islam poses to development is not a necessary one either.

Alfred Stepan points out that the real exception to the broad pattern of democratisation during what Samuel Huntington labeled the “third wave” of democratic transitions from the 1970s to the 1990s is actually not a Muslim exception, but more of an Arab exception; it would appear that there is something in Arab political culture that has been more resistant. What that could be is subject to debate, but it might well be a cultural obstacle that is not related to religion, such as the survival of tribalism. And the contemporary challenge that the world faces in the form of radical Islamism or jihadism is much more political than religious, cultural, or civilisational.

As Olivier Roy and Roya and Ladan Boroumand have argued, radical Islamism is best understood as a political ideology. The writings of Sayyid Qutb, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or Osama bin Laden and his ideologues within al-Qaida, make use of political ideas about the state, revolution, and the aesthetisation of violence that do not come out of any genuine Islamic tradition, but out of the radical ideologies of the extreme left and right — that is to say, fascism and communism — from 20th-century Europe.

These doctrines, which are extremely dangerous, do not reflect any core teachings of Islam, but make use of Islam for political purposes. They have become popular in many Arab countries and among Muslims in Europe because of the deep alienation that exists in these communities. Radical Islamism is thus not the reassertion of some traditional Islamic cultural practice, but should be seen in the context of modern identity politics. It emerges precisely when traditional cultural identities are disrupted by modernisation and a pluralistic democratic order that creates a disjuncture between one’s inner self and external social practice.

This is why so many violent jihadists like Mohammed Atta, organiser of the 11 September attacks, or Mohammed Bouyeri, murderer of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, were radicalised in western Europe. Modernisation has from the beginning created alienation and thus opposition to itself, and in this respect contemporary jihadists are following in the footsteps of anarchists, Bolsheviks, fascists, and members of the Baader-Meinhof gang in earlier generations.

The question is whether intensely radicalised and alienated Muslims are potentially powerful enough to threaten liberal democracy itself. Clearly, modern technology gives them a shortcut in the form of weapons of mass destruction, which were not available to earlier generations of terrorists. But political Islam has not had a strong territorial base up to now, and in those countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, or Sudan where it has come to power, it has not had an attractive economic or social record.

There are other interpretations of Islam vying for primacy, moreover, in a way that guarantees that much of the struggle will be internal to the Muslim world. As an external threat, then, it would seem that the challenge is less severe than that mounted by communism, which was both globally appealing and linked to a powerful modern state.

The bigger problem for the future of liberal democracy will be the one internal to democratic societies, particularly on the part of countries like France or the Netherlands that have large Muslim minorities. Europe by and large has been less successful in integrating culturally distinct minorities than the United States, and growing violence on the part of second- and third-generation European Muslims points to a far darker side of identity politics than the demands made by, for example, the Quebec or Scottish nationalists.

Angry, unassimilated cultural minorities produce backlash on the part of the majority community, which then retreats into its own cultural and religious identity. Preventing this from spiralling into something that looks like a “clash of civilisation” will require moderation and good judgment on the part of political leaders, something not automatically guaranteed by the modernisation process itself.

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2 responses to “Francis Fukuyama: the ‘end of history’ revisited

  1. DenizenGT

    May 10, 2006 at 11:47 am

    Greetings fellow aussie 🙂 I hope I find you in good health. I’ve got a few comments for you.

    The whole notion that Islam (and it’s adherents) are somehow animalistic and backward is often espoused by those who are clearly bigoted or ignorant.

    Does democracy occur overnight? Does it occur in a decade, or two? Democracy comes as a product of the desire for representation – and in an era of stability. The much vaunted United States came to democracy only after a tumultuous history.

    Only 20% of the world’s Muslim population is in the Middle East, yet this is where the entire Western world (which in itself is not entirely “democratic”) is focussed, unfairly and improperly. Even before it’s religious “partitioning” it was a troubled region.
    Everywhere else, predominantly Muslim countries are making strides in economy, culture and democracy – there seems to be an unfair expectation that Muslim countries must somehow solve their problems (legacy of colonialisation, interfering foreign interests, ethnic issues) immediately and come to the table as fully fledged democracies.

    Take note though – there are powerful people who know how to make a fortune from disaster, so a “clash of civilisations” may be right up their alley. To lay the blame at the feet of religion is to ignore the other motives – ole fashioned greed.

    Alright that was more than a few comments – my apologies, this topic stirs me good.

  2. Owner

    May 10, 2006 at 12:28 pm

    Good rant there, but do a search of my blogs Lines from a Floating Life and Books and Ideas; you will find I am not a “clash of civilisations” person, though I am also convinced Islam is facing some real issues itself. There are plenty of Muslims aware of that and addressing it in various ways. See my blogroll under “Faith and Philosophy” for a few sites I look at. I actually do know some Muslims and do talk to them.

    I posted Fukuyama without much comment for discussion purposes only; glad you discussed. But I hope I am not “bigoted and ignorant”, even if not everything I say would be pleasing to all Muslims, or to all Christians either for that matter.

    See my entry here on Blood and Oil, an interpretation that makes far more sense to me than the “clash of civilsations” hypothesis.

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