Daily Archives: October 12, 2011

Will Jihadist Islam Give Way to Democracy?

The prospect for democracy in the
Islamic world is currently an energized debate that has interesting political,
religious, and practical consequences. One perspective on the problem is most
represented by the noted political theorist Samuel Huntington. Huntington was
blunt about the fact that democracy was quite incompatible with the Muslim
world. He argued that the Muslim world lacks the preconditions for a transition
to democracy. His very popular book, The
Clash of Civilizations
, was at least indirectly informed by a pessimism
about democracy and Islam. Islam lacked, according to Huntington, key concepts
such as popular sovereignty, human rights, and market economies.

But the problem with this perspective is
that it is short term. Moreover, this sort of pessimism about democracy and
Islam is overly influenced by current conditions of fundamentalism, fueled by
Al Qaeda, or “Islamism.” In fact, there is another way to think about
the issue. If one simply makes a direct comparison between doctrinal issues in
Islamism and democracy, then Islam will not compare favorably. Islamism in its
current extreme form is antithetical to any idea of democracy. But it is
possible to take different theoretical perspective – one that involves a longer
view of history and looks more to social and economic conditions rather than
doctrinal principles. It is possible to argue that the actual content of Islam
is less important than the conditions that give rise to it.

Michael Walzer, the noted political
philosopher, makes a very interesting argument based on his book from the 1960s
on the origins of radical politics. Walzer argues that radicals (read modern-day
Jihadists) emerge during periods of social dislocation. When societies are confused
about how to organize themselves, when they are confronting change and
transitions that require new ways of thinking and behaving, is when conditions
are ripe for the emergence of radicals, especially those that seek purity and a
return to discipline and order. The radical ideology subsides when peace and
calm are restored.

Walzer points out that the road to
radicalism begins with an individual or group that views themselves as chosen;
this chosen group is characterized by certainty and confidence; their
relationship with the rest of the world is warlike and they turn toward their
internal cohesion with testimonies of formal commitment. The chosen band sees
itself as a saint and free to propose new political organizations. The saints, as
Walzer terms them, carry people through a time of change and offer a form of

The parallels with Islamic
fundamentalism are easy to recognize in terms of the revolutionary content of
jihadist ideology, its transformative message, and the social origins of its adherents.
If the analysis is correct and has any traction at all there should be in the
future an evolution away from jihadism. Other scholars have made the argument
that modern-day fundamentalists are a departure from Islamic historical and
political conditions. And over time the counter reaction to Islamism will be
what ushers in liberalizing influences. Finally, if it is true that social
conditions are more important than the content of ideology, then perhaps
political theorists and social scientists can figure out ways to nudge history

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