World Order and Islamism

I’ve been meaning to say something here about Charles Hill’s brilliant book Trial of a Thousand Years: World Order and Islamism.  Published in 2011, Trial is a profound meditation on one of the most pressing questions facing the world community: whether Islam can integrate itself into the secular international order of states.

There are abundant reasons to conclude that the answer is probably “No, Islam cannot integrate itself into the secular order without ceasing to be Islam.”  The Egyptian author and activist Sayyid Qutb (an early and prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, executed by Egyptian authorities in 1966) said why in a sentence:  “A Muslim has no nationality except his religious beliefs.”

Is that so? It depends whom you ask. Nervous Western politicians disagree. They insist that “we are not at war with Islam.” When Cairo erupted a couple of years ago and Hosni Mubarak was deposed, James Clapper, the dunder-headed director of national intelligence, assured members of Congress that the Muslim Brotherhood was “a largely secular organization,” i.e., nothing to see here, move along.

Reality failed to live up to Mr. Clapper’s fantasy (or was it merely his mendacity?), but the question lingers: Is Islam the problem? Or is it only those bad hats who have a fondness for blowing up things, treating women as chattel, abominating anyone who is not a paid-up member of the Ummah, and generally endeavoring to impose sharia, Islamic law, on everyone everywhere?

Again, it depends whom you ask. Jacqui Smith, the former British home secretary, showed that she was a comedienne of Clapper stature when some members of the religion of peace blew up an SUV at the Glasgow airport a few years ago. Ms. Smith insisted the we not call such events instances of “Islamic terrorism,” but rather call them examples of “anti-Islamic activity.” Why? Because even if the “extremists” responsible for such outrages just happened, by some wild coincidence, to be Muslim, they were acting contrary to their faith. Right. So shouting “Allahu Akbar” and steering a jetliner into a skyscraper is not Islamic terrorism but really, deep down, essentially, anti-Islamic activity. (And I, to quote Dorothy Parker, am Marie of Roumania.)

Hopeful Westerners cherish the consoling thought that we can distinguish effectively between moderate Islam, which deserves, and which wishes to have, a place at the table of modern states, and the other sort of Islam — radical Islam, jihadist Islam, extremist Islam, etc. — which takes the Qutb line and rejects statehood as the work of the devil. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey, doesn’t like such distinctions. They are, he says, “offensive and an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam, and that’s it.” Is he right?

There are some countervailing Muslim voices. Charles Hill cites several towards the end of his book.  Indeed, he concludes on a hopeful note, which is only appropriate for a book that is part of the Hoover Institution’s Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order, which “seeks to engage in the task of reversing Islamic radicalism through reforming and strengthening the legitimate role of the state across the entire Muslim world.” That’s the antistrophe of his argument: to distinguish firmly between Islam — a religion like any other — and Islamism: the triumphalist ideology of Islam which might make use of modern modern liberal institutions, but only tactically, to increase its own power.

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.”

What’s next?  No one knows. But the stakes could hardly be higher:

If the Islamists can defeat the Middle Eastern states that seek to reforms and work within the international system, we will be faced with another world war. Like the cold war, it will be a war launched by a revolutionary ideology that aims to destroy the international state system and replace it with one of its own.

Like what? This is where the Islamic “sharia state” comes in. “It is the opposite of the procedural Westphalian state; it is an idea of the sacred in political form.  Pluralism is anathema to the Islamist state; its logical consequence would be a single al Nizam al-Islami, a single Islamist governing system for the world.”

Alarmist overstatement? Or sober description of the facts?  I think the latter.  But then I am one of those right-wing neanderthals who believe that “Islamophobia” is a stupid and meaningless coinage.  A “phobia” is an unwarranted or irrational fear. What could be more rational, more deeply warranted, than to fear the intrusion of Islam into liberal Western society? Ask the journalist Daniel Pearl what he thinks about “Islamophobia.” Or the three thousand people who didn’t make it home from the World Trade Center on Septemeber 11, 2001. Or . . .  the list could go on and on.

Charles Hill discerns “many profound voices” within Islam that have challenged the theocratic interpretation of Islam and asked whether Islam (not Islamism) “can be compatible and comfortable within the larger international state system for world order.” He senses a “slowly growing recognition that the authentic teachings of the Quran and Hadith have had to be manipulated by radical interpretations in order to provide a spurious theological cover  for practices that are no more divinely decreed than was the practice of foot binding in pre-modern China.” I hope he is right. So far, I regret to say, the record has not been encouraging.

P.S. My friend Andrew Bostom writes to ask what we should call the "the 88% of ordinary Egyptian Muslims who favor killing 'apostates' from Islam? Are we to call them all 'Islamists,' whose 'ideology' is 'Islamism'? Or simply pious, traditional Muslims abiding the normative, mainstream Sharia of Islam?" (See his post on why deposing Morsi won't end the rejection of secularism in Egypt.) He suggests that we simply dispense with the "fig leaf" of the Islam/Islamism dichotomy — is there, he asks, really a difference? As I acknowledged above, the record is not encouraging, yet alongside that 88% in Egypt there are millions upon millions of Muslims outside the Mideast who have made their peace with modernity. Charles Hill provides some scraps, some intimations, of hope.  "A new mentality," he says, "is emerging  which begins to dissolve the conventional wisdom that a secular versus sacred confrontation is inevitable." I hope he is right about that. But I know that he is right that "the first step is to recognize the problem and then try to develop ways to deal with the exploitation of asymmetries by the enemies of world order."

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