Islam is nearly always in conflict with democracy: both historically and today. There is one single contemporary phenomenon which exemplifies this perfectly. Bizarrely, it’s occurring in the West, not in the Muslim world.
One fundamental aspect of all democracies is free speech. It’s crystal clear, then, that very many Muslims – even here in the West – have carried out a systematic campaign against the freedom of speech. Now if that’s happening in the UK and the West generally, what are the chances that the Muslim world as a whole will embrace the neo-con dream of “democracy for all”?
The term “neoconservative” seems to have been invented, in 1973, by a socialist by the name Michael Harrington. In any case, it’s certainly become a Leftist soundbite. Leftists use it at the drop of a hat. (Or at least they did until they adopted “neo-liberalism” instead a few years ago: after the fire from the “neo-cons’ war in Iraq” had burned out.) What I mean by that is that the vast majority of Leftists or “progressives” seem to use the term “neo-con” (as they do “Islamophobe”, “bigot”, “neo-liberal”, “far right”, “racist”, “fascist”, etc.) as a kind of ad hominem or as a literal substitute for thought.
This isn’t to say that people haven’t classed themselves as neoconservatives. They have.
I’m quite prepared to say that the neo-cons were never a monolithic movement. It may also be the case that some of the people classed as neo-cons in this piece might never have classed themselves that way. In addition, some of the ideas classed as neo-con, if implicitly, might not be entirely neo-con either.
In a certain sense, none of that really matters. It’s the ideas that matter: not the people and not the classifications.
So why use “neo-con” in the title even though certain neo-cons themselves were saying – as far back as 1996 – that neoconservatism is dead? I use the term simply because very many people do use the term “neo-con”. It may also be the case that both friends and enemies of neoconservatism (if it actually exists) believe that there’s a certain degree of shared ground as to what neoconservatism really is. And one place in which there seems to have been some consensus is on the impact neo-cons had on American foreign policy. So it’s that subject alone which I’ll deal with in this piece.
Democracy For All?
Jean Kirkpatrick expressed the motivation behind the “neo-con project” with this oft-quoted sentence:
“No idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime and anywhere, under any circumstances.”
In the early days, certain neo-cons made a distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. They believed that (some? all?) authoritarian regimes could eventually evolve into democracies but that totalitarian (or Marxist-Leninist) ones couldn’t. It turned out that the Communist regimes did turn into democracies (at least in part); but that many of the authoritarian regimes didn’t. Why was that?
Just as some early neo-cons made a distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes; so distinctions can be made between authoritarian ones. And the one distinction which shall be made here is between the authoritarian regimes of Muslim countries and those of other countries.
I’d say that the chance of authoritarian regimes in Muslim countries evolving into democracies are even slimmer than the chances of certain totalitarian regimes evolving into democracies. In fact some totalitarian regimes (the communist ones and also, possibly, China in the future) did evolve into democracies; but no Muslim regime has ever really done so. In fact some may argue that certain Islamic states are closer to being totalitarian (e.g., Iran, Gaza, Saudi Arabia, etc.) than they are to being old-fashioned authoritarian regimes.
There were a handful – or less – of Muslim countries which were democratic in the 20th century. For example, Turkey after the First World War and Malaysia today. (Malaysia is a tricky example primarily because Muslims only make up 61% of a population which includes a very productive and large Chinese, usually Buddhist, contingent. In other words, Malaysia is only just “a Muslim country”.)
You will find that these few Muslim countries were democracies in spite of Islam, certainly not because of it. Indeed these countries became democracies to the extent that they managed to erase Islam from the state and, to varying degrees, from the social sphere as well. The less manifest Islam there was in these countries, the more democratic they became. Similarly, the more they become Islamic (as with Turkey and Syria today), the less they will be democracies.
The simple reason for all this is that Islam, and therefore Muslim societies, cannot accommodate Western-style democracy (if there is another kind). Islam itself is against democracy; as countless contemporary Muslims have stated and Muslims have argued for around 1,400 years. There are indeed handfuls of Westernised, educated and middle-class Muslims in the West who say otherwise. However, they have virtually zero influence in the Muslim world and it’s not even clear whether all of them really do believe in democracy anyway. (They certainly don’t believe in free speech.)
Jean Kirkpatrick went on to explain why the democratisation or liberalisation of authoritarian, rather than totalitarian, regimes may work. She said:
“[Authoritarian regimes] do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations.”
This is all about how the state in these countries doesn’t really impinge on areas of everyday life. However, what if “the habitual rhythms of work and leisure” and the “habitual patterns of family and personal relations” themselves are not conducive to democracy or thoughts of freedom and liberty? What if habitual rhythms of work, leisure, family and personal relations are – at least to some extent – Islamic in nature?
In other words, in Islamic societies it’s not all the fault of the state. It’s not even all the fault of the dictators either because they too are often tapping into various Islamic and therefore tribal strains within Muslim countries.
This highlights the bogus distinction that many Muslims make, at least in the West, between “culture and religion” (Islam). That is, whenever something bad happens (such as honour killings, forced genital mutilation, bombings) in the Muslim world (or even in Muslim communities in the West), such people claim that it’s all a question of culture, not of Islam. However, whenever anything good happens (such as when a Muslim saves a cat which was stuck up a tree or attends an interfaith meeting), then that’s all a question of Islam, not of culture.
But this is a completely bogus distinction if you bear in mind two things. One, Islam has existed for up to 1,400 years in parts of the Muslim world. (So that neat distinction between Islam and traditional culture hardly makes sense.) Two, religion, or Islam, is a cultural phenomenon anyway.
Jean Kirkpatrick also offered us a classical account of totalitarian states. She wrote:
“[National Socialist and International Socialist states] claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society and make demands for change that so violate internalized values and habits that inhabitants flee by the tens of thousands.”
The main argument, from the early neo-cons, as to why totalitarian regimes couldn’t evolve into democracies was that totalitarian regimes have total control of their people and authoritarian regimes don’t. In fact some of the neo-cons were so convinced of their position on the unchangeable nature of totalitarian regimes that Kirkpatrick (again) and Norman Podhoretz, for example, said that Solidarity in Poland was bound to fail. (Though this was said before the rise and rise of Solidarity – i.e., pre-1982/3.)
Yet Islam, to use Kirkpatrick’s words, also “claim[s] claim jurisdiction over the whole life of the society”. In some – or even many – Islamic or Muslim states there is virtual total Islamic control over the people – from the private to the public sphere.
We can see that the some neo-cons failed to distinguish between totalitarian and authoritarian states and their societies. Or rather they often made such distinctions in the case of communist states; but they didn’t do so when it came to Muslim or Islamic ones. In communist cases, the state was totalitarian but the peoples, on the whole, weren’t. In Muslim states (which are both authoritarian and totalitarian), we also have peoples who follow what amounts to a totalitarian religion – Islam. Muslim states have never really needed to fully impose Islam on their peoples to a large degree; though, of course, leaders like General Zia in Pakistan, for example, certainly attempted to do so (from 1979 onwards). (Muslim imperialists did impose Islam on various peoples when they first invaded non-Muslim states all those centuries ago.)
Not only is Islamic control total in the private sphere, as well as imposed by the state (to varying degrees), Islam is also imposed at the community or village/town level as well. This means that the level of control the state has within Muslim countries is often replicated at the village/town level. Here, instead of state-control, we have the Islamic control of local imams, elders, clerics, Islamic scholars, ulemas, Islamist activists, etc. There is also cooperation between these local areas of Islamic control and the state. But there’s also conflict. However, the conflict often arises because the state itself is attempting to liberalise sharia law and, in response, local Muslims – or at least many of them – oppose such attempts.
And all this leaves out the totalitarianism (or ‘totalism’, as post-structuralists put it) of the mind which is also characteristic of Islam.
The neo-cons also offered an almost Marxist analysis of the Muslim world in which it was claimed that “democracy and responsible governments” could limit the rise of Islamism. The first problem with this idea is the fundamental split that’s simply assumed between Islamism and Islam (or between Islamists and most Muslims). The second is the assumption that Muslim peoples, Islamist or non-Islamist, really want Western-style democracy (or even any kind of democracy).
The quasi-Marxist analysis became even more obvious when some neo-cons argued that the lack of jobs, or “economic opportunities”, also led to the rise of Islamism and/or the lack of democracy. This discounts the economic vibrancy of parts of Malaysia, Indonesia and even Saudi Arabia. In Indonesia and Malaysia Islamism is actually on the rise and Saudi Arabia has combined immense wealth with a severe lack of freedom and democracy. Here again the neo-cons completely discount Islam as an autonomous factor. In fact, as Marxists put it, they saw Islam as a mere “epiphenomenon of the socioeconomic material conditions which were underneath”.