Sunday, May 14, 2006

Fukuyama, Islam and Democracy

The excellent has recently been hosting a kind of symposium on the new afterword to The End of History and The Last Man by Francis Fukuyama. A couple of the articles have dealt with the interface between political Islam and the universalising experience of modernity. The upshot, it seems, is that the meeting of political Islam and modernity leads, surprisingly, to democracy.

First this piece, a rather hopeful paean to the democratic urge by Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Secondly, a sharper analysis by Olivier Roy. Saad deals directly with Egypt, and, I think, misses the point. Roy avoids mention of Egypt specifically, but the logic of his argument meshes very finely with the Brotherhood-State dynamic that has been unfolding here.

In his piece, Dr Ibrahim posits modernity VERSUS theocracy and autocracy. In his, Roy conflates modernity and democracy.

Well, both neo-fundamentalists and authoritarian regimes are products of modernity, not intrinsically prior to it, so the suggestion that the true application of modernity (in the form of neo-liberal democracy) will see them off is misguided. And the idea that modernity brings automatically democracy is contrary to one of Roy's keenest theses.

The first view is congruent with a whole set of imaginative constructions, which basically transform complex reality a digestible, manageable entity. There is the modern world, which is industrialised, liberal, democratic. It is geographically specific, usually meaning, say, Europe and North America. Then there is the world to which modernity is being brought, and which exists in a transition stage between pre-modern and modern reality - as if there is a line that can be crossed or a whistle that can be blown when it is reached.

So, according to a view like Dr Ibrahim's, Egypt's problem is that society is not modern enough, and that it has not progressed far enough along a line that departs from pre-modern social norms and arrives somewhere marked 'democracy'. The problems of society, associated with and caused by the authoritarian state, are teething troubles along a developmental curve.

This might be persuasive if you could plot Dr Ibrahim's two points of theocratic jihadists and autocratic rulers on axes that ignored the reality of Egypt's complex and ongoing relationship with external political actors. It might be persuasive if you thought that the regimes of Mubarak/Sadat and Nasser were purely Egyptian inventions and had nothing to do with the geo-political mess that Egypt has so frequently been in.

But jihadists, and authoritarian government are a product of Egypt's interaction with external actors (or, if you like, with its interaction with modernity), not things that lie passively waiting to be changed by it.

First, government. The modern Egyptian technocratic state owes much in both design and practice to external actors of many kinds. In its design, it draws on French and British legal codes, Soviet style bureucractic structure, and neo-liberal (and specifically American) theory when it comes to planning for economic development. For sure, authoritarianism was honed in Egypt during the alignments of the Cold War, but now they are buttressed by a technocratic ability that comes as much from USAID as anywhere. In practice, it is allowed to be authoritarian, and in some cases required to be so, by the main actors in the geopolitical theatre of the Middle East. Egypt's perceived tension between say, political Islam and democratisiation is managed by the application of authoritarian government. The State Department would have it no other way.

Secondly, Jihadists, or shall we say 'violent political Islam' derives its millenial force from a perception of a power mismatch between the controllers of modernity and its recipients. But in their geographical dislocation, in their dismantling of societal links, in their empowerment of the individual as agent of change, and in their appropriation of technology as agents of destruction, organisations like Jamma Islamiyya (from which grew many other such groups) were/are thoroughly modern in themselves. Again, they are not passive actors waiting for the forces of modernity to change them.

Olivier Roy has been one of the first to realise that political Islam is not external to modernity, but actively involved in it. Here, however, he conflates modernity and democracy. The very arguments he makes here to suggest the "slow but genuine internalisation of liberal and democratic values" he has used before to argue the internalisation of modernity. We see the assumption that modernity IS democracy, despite the acute realisation that modernity has produced other, quite antagonistic philosophies.

Of course, one must make the narrative arc. The practitioners of geopolitics would cease to function if the complexity of reality were allowed to confuse action. Indeed, 'conflate' and 'confuse' are etymologically related.

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