Friday, August 04, 2006

A bit from the middle: Goodbye to All That? A requiem for neoconservatism

A bit from the middle of my very much in draft review essay on neoconservatism, available in full draft at SSRN, here.

... But Fukuyama has a second argument against the Iraq war and transformative politics as a strategy in the war on terror. It is (drawing, as earlier noted, on such writers as Olivier Roy) that democratic regime transformation in the Middle East will not address the problem of Islamist extremism and terrorism, because they are phenomena not principally of the Middle East, but of Muslims confronting the loss of identity once in the West, and Western Europe particularly. Even assuming that the transformative strategy managed to stabilize Iraq, so runs Fukuyama’s argument, the social precursors of terrorism are fundamentally drawn from places we cannot attack with military force – Hamburg, Birmingham, Lyon, Stockholm, Berlin, Amsterdam, Oslo, Madrid, Marseilles, Manchester, Rotterdam, Paris banlieues, Londonistan. The phenomenon of Islamist terror is not precisely a sociological problem – it is, rather, the accumulation of individual psychologies, massed together in shared and yet still highly individual narratives of resentment, exclusion, and the search for universals in ‘blended’ pre-modern and post-modern Islamist religion, rather than in pluralist modernity. Islamism is a syncretic blend of pre-modern and post-modern, of traditional Islam and Western ideology, bathed in resentment – and its petri dish is the West and not the Middle East. Even if the birthplaces of the 9-11 hijackers were Saudi Arabia and Egypt, their jihadist spiritual formation was in Western Europe. The Bush administration launched, on this account, a war that quite missed the point – targeting the wrong region and, indeed, the wrong country – a country that was, for all the evil of its regime, relatively secular.

I do not deny the strength of Fukuyama’s psychological observations. On the contrary, they are an indispensable part of any deep understanding of the esprit de corps of the terrorists we fight. The psychological element is indispensable. Understanding the syncretic nature, the multiple syncretisms, of the enemy’s Islamism is essential to a successful strategy against it. Its psychology and that of the larger Muslim world, as its adherents array themselves in relation to modernity, one person at a time as well as by social group, are keys to long-term counterterrorism policy, as well as the closely linked path of social integration. It is a powerful prescription, in fact, for deep-seated ideological changes in Western societies and their states – although not exactly, perhaps, the ones Fukuyama had in mind. The diagnosis of syncretism is a powerful prescription, in fact, for the explicit, public abandonment of the doctrines of multiculturalism in Western societies that have so damaged them, because they reward resentment, legitimize separation, and fuel a spiraling demand for special social privileges that amount to exemption from society’s rules for the resentful and a constriction of the liberty of the resented. A powerful argument, indeed, for a vigorous reassertion in its stead of traditional liberalism, and above all its guarantees of free expression even – of course, rather – for blasphemy, and the reassertion of a traditional liberal refusal to tolerate the demands of the intolerant that their intolerance be tolerated. Allah Akbar? No, on the contrary, as things stand now, the God of Muslims in the West is not great; his greatness, once brought into Western societies, has deteriorated into merely a move in a game, has become merely the grounds for the assertion of religious privilege wrapped in complaints of discrimination and intolerance by larger secular society, a means of feeding psychological and spiritual ressentiment.[1] The real god of the dialectic of Muslims in the West, alas, the one which confers blessings and answers prayers, turns out to be the state and its multiculturalism.[2]

During a visit to Paris a few months ago, I took my young daughter to the Pantheon. We laid flowers at Voltaire’s tomb. The other visitors, not all of them merely ignorant American tourists, alas gave us funny stares. Voltaire? Why Voltaire? Voltaire who? At some point, Europe and America will have to defend their broadly liberal inheritance (an inheritance which is, in America, liberal religious pluralism, to be precise, rather than the liberal secularism, descended from anti-clericalism, of Europe). The core of that defense is that ‘moderate’ Islam, Islam that can take its place alongside other religions in a pluralistic Western society, can only exist, paradoxically, within a cage of iron and steel that insists without apology or reservation that Islam tolerate the liberal secular order of public life, without special privileges derived from arguments of multiculturalism and asserted through carefully cultivated Western ressentiment – while simultaneously protecting, with force if need be, its ability to be moderate as against the Islamists, the extremists and the terrorists. Only a Muslim community which knows that larger society will not compromise its demands that it be pluralistic and that it respect and embrace the universal values of a liberal society, but also that it will be protected against the demands of extremists that it acquiesce in their Islamism, has even the possibility of being moderate – moderation, that is, as an active religious doctrine, a positive value it teaches to its children, rather resting merely silently and sullenly passive, even as the extremists fantasize and dream, steeped in the unlimited resentments and unlimited field of action that fantasy allows, of war, jihad, and terror.


[1] With apologies to Christopher Hitchens.

[2] Compare, by contrast, the wisdom of Martin Luther King, who urged his oppressed followers not to give into resentment, finding in it a certain un-Christian arrogance as well as the psychological condition of permanent spiritual servitude. See the discussion of Martin Luther King’s “spiritual discipline against resentment” in Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (WW Norton 1991), at 369 et seq.

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