The Year in Ideas–The Upside to Radical Islam

Good news! Radical, militant Islam may be a force of ”creative destruction” in the Arab world — one that is positioned to clear the way for a new, democratic order in the Middle East. That, at least, is the surprising premise put forward by Francis Fukuyama, writing with Nadav Samin, in the September issue of Commentary.

Fukuyama, who first came to public attention in 1989 with his contention that the rise of the liberal democratic state marked the effective ”end of history,” sees the Islamic world today as roughly where Europe was during its industrial age. Following the great rural exodus of the 18th and 19th centuries, millions of dislocated, miserable European peasants began to turn to radical mass movements like Fascism and Communism. For all the damage they did, Fukuyama and Samin contend, these movements at least ”cleared away some of the premodern underbrush that had obstructed the growth of liberal democracy,” like the sclerotic rule of the Junkers in Germany and the Romanovs in Russia.

Today’s Muslim societies, the authors write, have seen their own rural masses move ”to the vast urban slums of Cairo, Algiers and Amman, leaving behind the variegated, often preliterate Islam of the countryside.” This dislocation has left thousands of men and women angry and alienated, and those individuals — including the Sept. 11 hijackers — have turned to the Communist/Fascist equivalents in their own societies: the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda and other radical Islamist organizations.

It would be a mistake, Fukuyama and Samin assert, to view this as a revival of traditional Islam. Radical Islam is a real departure — a reformist movement that challenges almost every aspect of traditional authority in Islamic societies, from social services to jurisprudence to the exclusion of women from public life. Osama bin Laden, in issuing his 1998 fatwa against the United States, defied ”the fundamental sources of authority and legitimacy in the Islamic world,” the authors write. It was ”a bit like Hitler issuing a papal encyclical, or Lenin a decree in the name of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

Skeptics might argue that Nazism and Communism were more catastrophic than any alternative would have been and that Europe’s ”premodern underbrush” was actually cleared away by the carnage of World War I. Fukuyama himself concedes that the totalitarian tendencies of Islamic militants may well lead to ”disaster” and advocates that they be confronted and contained with a ”determined application of military power.” But he also says that ”one has to deal with what one has,” and he is encouraged by democratic stirrings, particularly in Iran. Revolutions have a way of going where nobody expects them to, not even their instigators, he writes, and ”a line crossed in the name of waging all-out war against the West may yet be crossed in the name of healthier purposes.”