Three Notes on Liberalism vs Islamism

1. Well prior to the establishment of the perfect liberal democratic state, what the liberal calls “accommodation” equates for all others with capitulation, under the longer term prospect of extinction.

The complete triumph of any one ideology, the true believer’s utopia, would render all other political ideologies inert, turn their pamphlets into antique texts, their slogans into fading echoes, their objectives into objects of nostalgia.

In Egypt, what Hussein Ibish calls “accommodation” would for Islamists, as well as for the felool, equate with capitulation, under the longer term prospect of extinction. This prospect is deemed intolerable, just as the proposed or traditional “accommodations” of liberal or other minority aspirations under Islamist or nationalist-authoritarian regimes may be perceived as intolerable to those “accommodated.”

Under the victory of the liberals, as Mr. Ibish and his allies like to point out, Islamists in particular could go on being religious, but they would be allowed to be liberally religious only, religious in the way that secularist liberals, acolytes of the Great Separation, understand religion: Islam in Egypt would be functionally liberalized: subjectivized or culturalized. Theocrats would be free to conceive of and argue for theocracy; they would remain fully free to believe, passively, whatever they chose to believe, to retain and understand their politico-religious doctrines as mental objects or reference points, but they would be constitutionally prevented from actualizing their absolute premise of the interpenetration of politics, public morality, and faith within a theocratic culture-state.

Ibish’s liberalism – i.e., globalized Western liberal democracy as entire system rather than as element within a more complex or, alternatively, fully reconciled system – is in this one critical respect identical with Islamism, and with reactionary-nationalist conservatism: It means to be irrevocable. Liberal-democratic observers of Middle Eastern affairs have been fond of describing democratic Islamism as “one man, one vote, one time,” under the presumption that further electoral events, if any, under an installed theocracy will be in the final analysis shams, since they will never be allowed actually to threaten the illiberal foundations of the new regime. That the liberal constitution operates identically – i.e., suppressively – from the perspective of a non-liberal seems to escape the liberal: The liberal often appears to be constitutionally incapable even of conceiving of the parallel and at the same time remaining a liberal. Ironically, paradoxically, perhaps foundationally, this tendency is the least liberal thing about especially the most ardent liberals. Instead, by an act of faith, the liberal internalizes the Great Separation as a conceptual Great Wall against self-scrutiny.

2. Prior to a reconciliation of fundamental differences – a reconciliation that must on some level take the form of a syncretic reconciliation – the so-called “accommodation of heterogeneity” will remain a concrete problem realized as actual conflict and decision by preponderant force, in a word by violence or the threat of it.

The entire burden of Hussein Ibish’s argument for liberal democracy in the Middle East and, indeed, throughout the world and in all times and places, eventually lands on the concept of “heterogeneous societies.”

The phrase connotes variety, multiplicity, diversity: The source of the distinctive “buzz” of democracy, a well-known sound since ancient times. According to Ibish, liberalism “accommodates” this heterogeneity in a way that other ideologies do not or cannot: Taken as a universal reality of mass societies, heterogeneity both requires and justifies liberalism, or liberal democracy, as the simultaneously most practical and intrinsically most desirable, “inherent[ly] superior” “system.” This endorsement is unqualified enough to evoke the “end of history” paradigm (updated right Hegelianism) of Francis Fukuyama, who equated the liberal mass democratic nation-state with the effectively final and universal political settlement.

The main conceptual problem with this formulation (Ibish’s, not Fukuyama’s updated one as I understand it) is that no society can be defined as more heterogeneous than it is homogeneous. Strictly as a matter of logic, what actually constitutes a polity as a polity at all, or any particular society as a society, is the definition and operation of its unifying principles – the basis of its actual homogeneity (its “genus”).

The main practical problem is that heterogeneity is neither a merely abstract phenomenon nor a phenomenon of neutrally aesthetic features of social groups or passively held individual affinities. The heterogeneity of a mass society is a heterogeneity of multiple relatively autonomous, unevenly overlapping associations each characterized by its own intentionality – its own intents and purposes – in regard to the social whole under its own conception. The differences between ethnic groups, religious sects, political factions, economic trusts, guilds, unions, and so on, manifest as competition and conflict, as differences in interests, not merely as interesting differences.

Prior to a reconciliation of the most fundamental conflicts within a given society – a reconciliation that must, as I intend to argue later, on some level take the form of a syncretic reconciliation heterogeneity will remain a concrete problem realized as actual conflict and decision by preponderant force, in a word by violence or the threat of it, to whatever degree moderated or mediated by political institutions and actual social-cultural coherence. Whoever preaches the final irreconcilability of ideological differences and the absolute triumph of one constitution of the state over another, even as an enshrinement of supposed neutrality, preaches violence.

3. The establishment of the liberal democratic order is never a merely “ideological,” narrowly “political,” or exclusively “economic” operation.

The globalized West cannot help but seek to export and effectively to impose its cultural and economic relations along with its political concept. The actual as opposed to merely juridical constitution of the comprehensive liberal-democratic order has been accomplished historically in a by now familiar manner: The reduction or indeed the pulverization of native or pre-existing heterogeneity and the conversion of its relatively dissociated remnants, under maximum achievable and continuously reinforced atomization of citizens in relation to family, clan, tribe, religion, and pre-capitalist vocation, into the pre-decayed set decoration and insensate soundtrack of market economism and anomie. This observation may be taken as anti-liberal and anti-modern, but I offer it without the presumption that an on-balance better alternative is actually or likely achievable. Without taking sides either on the inevitability or on the desirability of continued globalization, we can still acknowledge the likelihood that some individual citizens and particular groups will view the liberal democratic order, at least as advanced by its main proponents, as a set of unlikely promises at best, and otherwise as a “profound threat.”

8 comments on “Three Notes on Liberalism vs Islamism

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    • First, what I might be “for” is all but completely immaterial, because I don’t have to live with the consequences except by a very tenuous construction. Second, until we actually understand the situation, we cannot locate an authentic “liberal” interest even presuming one clearly exists. I’m in favor of all the Earth’s children going being well-fed, happy, and loved, but I’m not sure exactly how to bring that about. The self-identified liberals themselves have been split over how and whether to vote at every stage. It’s not 1776 and Egypt isn’t the 13 Colonies. If Thomas Jefferson showed up, he might not get much of a hearing.

      Third, your criticism seems to imply that you have some clear notion of exactly what the right thing for them and us to say and do must be. So what is it? What is the correct comprehensive program, in your view? “Not support the Islamists” would be, a most, only one element, or an aspect of one element of one plank of a platform, since “not support” covers everything from “cooperate fully while just continuing to argue your position” to “pick some Islamists but seek to isolate others” to “support particular opposition candidates or allies, but not others,” to “support a popular anti-Islamist front within the electoral framework,” to “pursue a two-prong strategy but remain non-violent,” to “multi-prong strategy including civil disobedience short of violence,” to “uncompromising opposition regardless of the human cost as long as the evil is expunged at the earliest possible moment,” and lots in between.

      So, what’s your plan, what’s your program? I’ve been asking for almost two years now, and still haven’t heard it.

    • well, see Foucault post – I don’t know anything about the state of Falk’s finances, where he’s working now, where he’s getting published if at all, I personally don’t think about him much, and I don’t want to have to keep flogging the vastness of my insignificance and my wealth of poverty, but to be thought of at all, even if despised by many and taken on balance to have had a detrimental effect (not saying he has had one), matters in the matter of mattering.

  1. He was at last count, a UN special reporteur on the occupied territorities, and a borderline 9/11 denialist, he was the one who thought Khomeini would turn out like Gandhi

  2. He’s been the former since 2008, and as for;

    In 2004, Falk wrote the preface to David Ray Griffin’s book The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11 which maintains that the George W. Bush administration was complicit in the September 11 attacks.[76] In that preface he argued: “There have been questions raised here and there and allegations of official complicity made almost from the day of the attacks, especially in Europe, but no one until Griffin has had the patience, the fortitude, the courage, and the intelligence to put the pieces together in a single coherent account.”[37] Falk also wrote a chapter for Griffin’s 2006 book, 9/11 and American Empire: Intellectuals Speak Out.[77]

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  1. […] my umpteen-hundredth explanation as to why seemingly my sole critic in the universe other than myself, commenter Miguel Cervantes, […]

  2. […] adaptive approach to profound questions may be much merely appealing, if not a first priority, but, as I have already sought to emphasize in regard to the liberalist-islamist divide, an underlying disinterest in the particulars of faith from the point of view of the faithful can […]

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