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January 26, 2007

Radical Islam, Identity, and Iraq: Fukuyama Flinches

Francis Fukuyama gets into the cultural criticism business by launching an intellectually subtle and largely valid attack on Western notions of multiculturalism. What’s both interesting and ironic about his argument, though, is that while it’s main thrust is a critique of the anti-nationalist (or anti-“national identity”) thinking predominant in Western democracies (mostly European), it’s also a powerful statement on the futility of the Iraq war. Unfortunately, he doesn't connect all the dots.

Fukuyama pits the Western aversion to normative identity (which manifests itself in a multiculturalist affirmation of the equality of all identities) against the felt need of migrants (particularly Muslims migrating to Europe) to secure a sense of self in an alien land. His argument rests on the premise that full selfhood inevitably relies on a sense of belonging, a deep connection to others—and the social and legal structures of a homeland. When migrants leave their home they will either identify with the social arrangements of their new home, or live as aliens and bond with some alternative. Hence when migrants move to Western European nations, they (or their children) become psychologically open to identifying with the new culture—provided there is a culturally specific vision of selfhood to adopt. And that is the problem. In Western Europe the notion of national identity has fallen out of favor, replaced, “officially” at least, a much weaker European cosmopolitanism bracketed by a multiculturalist tolerance. Migrating Muslims are “welcomed” within the borders (sort of), but not given either the incentive or the cultural mechanism to integrate into those societies.

Radical Islamism and jihadism arise in response to the resulting quest for identity. Those ideologies can answer the question of "Who am I?" posed by a young Muslim in Holland or France: you are a member of a global umma defined by adherence to a universal Islamic doctrine that has been stripped of all of its local customs, saints, traditions and the like. Muslim identity thus becomes a matter of inner belief rather than outward conformity to social practice. Roy points out that this constitutes the "Protestantisation" of Muslim belief, where salvation lies in a subjective state that is at odds with one's outward behaviour. Thus could Mohammed Atta and several of the other 9/11 conspirators allegedly drink alcohol and visit a strip club in the days before the attacks.

Understanding radical Islamism as a form of identity politics also explains why second and third-generation European Muslims have turned to it. First-generation immigrants have usually not made a psychological break with the culture of their land of birth and carry traditional practices with them to their new homes. Their children, by contrast, are often contemptuous of their parents' religiosity, and yet have not become integrated into the culture of the new society. Stuck between two cultures with which they cannot identify, they find a strong appeal in the universalist ideology of contemporary jihadism.

Fukuyama’s reading of “radical Islam” explains what so many in the
West assert with a kind of strained optimism: that jihadism has nothing to do with theology. It’s identity, stupid.
He also points out that this is not a problem in the United States, at least not in the same degree. Here, the notion of national identity still thrives, even if it has lost some if its luster in some precincts of the intelligentsia. More importantly, in the US national identity has always been “ideological.” It has not been absolutely grounded in common race or ethnicity, a shared primordial history, language, or myths of divine existential privilege. (Sure, those Massachusetts Bay colonists were on a mission from God to set up their city on a Hill; but as they saw it, their privilege was wholly contingent upon their performance.) Fukuyama uses Seymour Martin Lipset to help him make the point:

American identity was always political in nature and was powerfully influenced by the fact that the US was born from a revolution against state authority. The American creed was based on five basic values: equality (understood as equality of opportunity rather than outcome), liberty (or anti-statism), individualism (in the sense that individuals could determine their own social station), populism and laissez-faire. Because these qualities were both political and civic, they were in theory accessible to all Americans (after the abolition of slavery) and have remained remarkably durable over the republic's history. Robert Bellah once described the US as having a "civil religion," but it is a church that is open to newcomers.

I might point out here that I develop this idea in the introduction to my book on Whitman and his construction of patriotism and identity:

American patriotism means identifying oneself, both emotionally and intellectually, with classic American democratic values and ideals. Loyalty to America, in this sense, is loyalty to a utopian democratic creed—a “civic religion,” as writers such as William James, Herbert Croly, John Dewey, and of course, Walt Whitman, viewed it. In practice, such patriotism means permitting oneself genuine pride in those moments in history when Americans were able to translate their ideals into successful public policy. But even more importantly, it means laying legitimate claim to those democratic values and ideals—both as a resource for imagining new policy goals and as a powerful rhetorical tool to aid in achieving them.

If Fukuyama’s analysis fails at any point it’s in the assumption that the dynamics he writes of apply primarily to the problem of migration. In fact, the same tensions are at play in the neocolonial environment of the Middle East. He acknowledges as much, but does not develop the point

the problem of jihadist terrorism will not be solved by bringing modernisation and democracy to the middle east. The Bush administration's view that terrorism is driven by a lack of democracy overlooks the fact that so many terrorists were radicalised in democratic European countries. Modernisation and democracy are good things in their own right, but in the Muslim world they are likely to increase, not dampen, the terror problem in the short run.

Several months ago, Fukuyama famously withdrew his initial endorsement of the war in Iraq. But armed with such insights as above one wonders what the hell he could have been thinking in the first place. To possess a strong faith in the transcendent value of Western democracy, fundamental human rights, and universal liberty—a faith that I maintain without reservation—does not mean that one cannot appreciate that such values pose a threat to the version of selfhood prevalent in the traditionalist societies of the Middle East. Democratic values MUST threaten traditionalist cultures. Frankly, those cultures constitute the oppression from which we believe people deserve liberation. But liberation is first a condition of the mind. And a great military power cannot impose liberty. It can only help a people secure the political liberty they have already claimed as their spiritual birthright.

Posted by stevemack at 07:55 PM | Comments (3686) | TrackBack

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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