Comments on “Islam is the rock on which the liberal order broke?”

Commenter Pramathanath Sastry, quoting Omar Ali:

“If and when modern Liberalism … crashes and burns …., will future historians look back and say that Islam was the rock on which it first and decisively broke?” Will there be future historians (ones free to explore history and engage in it, speculate, publish) if modern liberalism crashes and burns?

My reply to P. Sastry, and as well to Omar Ali [cribbing old themes at this blog]:

Right and further: A non-humanist and illiberal and anti-modern “historian” would not be an “historian” of the same type as for us, or, to say the same thing, would be an “historian” as we understand the term only to the extent that he or she was “humanist” and “liberal” and “modern.”

So, in that sense, the answer to the blogger’s question must be “no.” History, if not necessarily “historians,” liberal-modern-humanist or other, may instead record that what broke this latest “liberal order” (a typical contradiction in terms), as before and likely again, as inevitably, was this latest liberal order itself.

What Omar Ali seems to be getting at, however, is:

  • 1) a set of dizzying contradictions and counter-contradictions that, impossibly but really, produce what we call (oxymoronically yet for that very same reason adequately descriptively) “liberal democracy,” the intrinsically “unstable state” or non-state state, and
  • 2) the way in which the confrontation with Islam or specifically with Islamism and its idea of a unitary politico-religious state exposes the peculiar self-contradiction and indeed the paradox, paradoxically suppressed, at the foundation of the regime of freedom and pluralism: the reliance on a form of religion, or on another form of politico-religious monism, in which the commitment to the separation of church and state is sustainable and indeed conceivable only through and as its opposite, a “civic religion,” or the integral, unitary, shared, “non-separated” commitment to and of a (re-)sacralized state.

A form of this contradiction is equally intrinsic to Islam or to Islamicate states, however. So historians may alternatively – or also – someday record that it was liberalism that finally broke Islam or the Islamic Order, and, perhaps, in so doing repaired one or both as well.


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To take power, May had to pretend that she, too, dreams these impossible dreams. And that led her to embrace a phony populism in which the narrow and ambiguous majority who voted for Brexit under false pretences are be reimagined as “the people.”

This is not conservatism—it is pure Rousseau. The popular will had been established on that sacred referendum day. And it must not be defied or questioned. Hence, Theresa May’s allies in The Daily Mail using the language of the French revolutionary terror, characterizing recalcitrant judges and parliamentarians as “enemies of the people” and “saboteurs.”

This is why May called an election. Her decision to do so—when she had a working majority in parliament—has been seen by some as pure vanity. But it was the inevitable result of the volkish rhetoric she had adopted. A working majority was not enough—the unified people must have a unified parliament and a single, uncontested leader: one people, one parliament, one Queen Theresa to stand on the cliffs of Dover and shake her spear of sovereignty at the damn continentals.

...Brexit is thus far from being a done deal: it can’t be done without a reliable partner for the EU to negotiate with. There isn’t one now and there may not be one for quite some time—at least until after another election, but quite probably not even then. The reliance on a spurious notion of the “popular will” has left Britain with no clear notion of who “the people” are and what they really want.

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The most extraordinary paragraph in this op-ed, however, is this one:

The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.

...First — and this is so obvious I can’t believe I have to type out these words — the United States can’t simultaneously proclaim “America first” and then claim any kind of moral strength. Saying loudly and repeatedly that American values are not going to be a cornerstone of American foreign policy strips you of any moral power whatsoever.

The second and bigger problem is that the “embrace” of a Hobbesian vision of the world by the most powerful country in the world pretty much guarantees Hobbesian reciprocity by everyone else. Most international relations scholars would agree that there are parts of the world that fit this brutal description. But even realists don’t think it’s a good thing. Cooperation between the United States and its key partners and allies is not based entirely on realpolitik principles. It has helped foster a zone of stability across Europe, North America and the Pacific Rim that has lasted quite some time. In many issue areas, such as trade or counterterrorism or climate change, countries gain far more from cooperation than competition.

Furthermore, such an embrace of the Hobbesian worldview is, in many ways, anti-American.

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The rise of the military, if coupled with the undermining of civilian aspects of national power, demonstrates a spiritual exhaustion and a descent into Caesarism. Named after Julius Caesar — who replaced the Roman Republic with a dictatorship — Caesarism is roughly characterized by a charismatic strongman, popular with the masses, whose rule culminates in an exaggerated role for the military. America is moving in this direction. It isn’t that some civilian agencies don’t deserve paring down or even elimination, nor is it that the military and other security forces don’t deserve a boost to their financial resources. Rather, it is in the very logic, ideology, and lack of proportionality of Trump’s budget that American decline, decadence, and Caesarism are so apparent.

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