World Order and Islamism

I hope that Charles Hill is right in thinking that the Islamist vision is not the only legitimate interpretation of Islam. But the strophe of his argument does not augur well. The Peace of Westphalia, which ended the carnage of the Thirty Years’ War  in 1648, deliberately jettisoned religion from the new international system of states it inaugurated. Henceforth, the world community would subscribe to a set of procedural norms that deliberately left most substantive “value questions” to one side. Did the Holy Spirit proceed from the father and the son? Or from the father alone?  The so-called filoque controversy sundered the Eastern Church from the West and was the source of much unhappiness. But after the Peace of Westphalia, such considerations — to say nothing of the divisions between Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics — were to be excluded from the negotiations of diplomatists and relegated to the seminar room. As Hill puts it, this arrangement has served as “every civilization’s other civilization, addressing a natural need, much as diverse species depend upon a common ecosystem.”

That’s a neat analogy. Hill is right about the advantages of the Westphalian system. It is a leitmotif of his earlier masterpiece Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order. And he is right, too, that “every major war of the modern age has been an ideologically driven attempt  — no two alike — to overthrow and replace the Westphalian international state system.” The French Revolution. Communism. That variant of Communism that Hitler peddled under the name National Socialism. All endeavored to replace the procedural Westphalian system with a world order based on a substantive ideology. Islamism endeavors to do the same.  The roots of this ambition date at least from the dissolution of the Caliphate in 1924.  But it moved  definitively into the realm of practical politics in 1979 with the ascension of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. The overthrow of the shah and institution of an Islamic theocracy was, as Hill argues, “a world-historical event possessing the ideological potential of the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 — each one a fundamental challenge to the established international order.”  Here, for the first time in history, the Ayatollah Khomeini brought to power “an Islamist regime in full control of a state with the international state system and with a theologically grounded agenda which rejected every core principle of international order.”

And here’s the rub: Islamists might “reject every core principle of international order.”  But they are perfectly happy to take advantage of the privileges and immunities which that order affords when it is to their benefit. They use and abuse Western freedoms in order, ultimately, to abolish those freedoms. Part of the Westphalian bargain is that states abide by the laws and procedures they subscribe to.  Terrorism makes a mockery of that obedience. Western states struggle to obey the rule of law.  Terrorists flout the law even as they demand its protections. Hence the elaborate concessions made to prisoners at Guantanamo Bay: kid-glove treatment of the Quran, punctilious respect for the trappings of Islam, fastidious adherence to legal niceties. The terrorists observe no such decorum.  The result is, as Hill observes, that “the laws  of war and the Geneva Conventions, enhanced by procedural safeguards, and deepening moral concerns for civilized conduct were in effect ‘weaponized’ by insurgents.”