Omar Ali: Islam vs. Western liberalism; only one can win

Summary: The clash of Islam and West has just began and none can see its end — or its consequences for us all. Here Omar Ali looks at Islam’s effect on the West, and draws some fascinating conclusions.

"No democracy we want just islam."
From a demonstration in Kabul on 25 October 2009. AFP/Shah Marai.

Is Islam the rock on which the liberal order broke?

By Omar Ali at Brown Pundits, 5 December 2016.
Posted with his generous permission.

This article was triggered by “Global Democracy Is On Shaky Ground“,
an episode of “On Point” by Tom Ashbrook on WBUR, 6 December 2016.

Back in 1992, Francis Fukuyama wrote his (much maligned, frequently misunderstood) book The End of History and the Last Man (see Wikipedia) and had this to say:

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such…. That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

The End of History and the Last Man
Available at Amazon.

People jumped on Fukuyama for all sorts of reasons, but I don’t remember any broad feeling that the Western liberal project had failed. Its most visible Western critics at that time tended to be postmarxists and postmodernists, whose entire existence (from their university appointments to every detail of their lives) was itself an appendage of Western liberal democracy and had no meaning or safe existence outside of that system; and whose real-life ability to bring down Western liberalism was insignificant (i.e., if and when it falls, it will not fall to these clowns).

Another kind of opposition came from the “Confucian authoritarians” {see 7. Neo-Daoism) — or postmarxist fascists, or whatever you want to call them — in China (and in small but influential exemplars, like Singapore). But while these groups had power and economic success, they had no great legitimizing ideology. They are may appear to be winning as long as they provide more and more goods to more and more of their people. But even while they do so, these same people are watching “Friends”, picking up liberal memes and dreaming of making Shanghai “better than Manhattan”.

It is hard to see them as a coherent alternative ideology. It is far more common (even WITHIN those systems) to think of them as authoritarian way stations on the long winding road to Western style “mature” liberal democracy and capitalism.

Some Right-wing opposition did come from people who rejected Western liberalism more deeply on religious or cultural-nationalist grounds. But currents like Great Russian Fascism or scattered illiberal Western ideologies — from the “almost inside the Overton Window” Pat Buchanan to Christian identity folks and a few hundred actual fascists — tended to be fringe affairs, or at least they were treated as such by most public intellectuals and the media. Triumphant liberal ideology had internal divisions and weaknesses (including the above-mentioned defection of many university trained intellectuals to postmodern/postcolonial/critical theory crap) and lacunae, but apparently, no serious competitor.

The thinking that puts humanity, rationality, freedom and the free individual at the center of the world; and which includes memes (not necessarily unique to it, not necessarily derived from first principles, but aggregating in a recognizable meme-complex) like legal equality, secularism, democracy and human rights, was so dominant, it was taken for granted.  These were the legitimizing ideas that all modern states at least paid lip service to. Democratic socialism is just a variant of this dominant post-enlightenment meme complex; even Marxist socialism is a variant of the same complex (Marxist revolutionaries, for example, idealized the same memes of equality, liberty and rights, but claimed that mainstream liberal Democracy failed to match its ideals and was a sham, a betrayal of these very ideals, and so on).

The place where this whole meme-complex really hit a solid rock was in the Islamic worldIt was not immediately apparent that this was so. Many Western post-enlightenment ideals were popular among the Westernized intellectuals of the postcolonial Muslim world. But the grip (and even the personal commitment) of these intellectuals was shallow. This was not easily visible to liberal contemporaries.

And of course, not to Muslim liberals themselves. It is doubtful whether someone like Muhammad Ali Jinnah {founder of Pakistan} ever really understood the illiberal nature of his demand for Pakistan for example.

The difference between Muslim and non-Muslim intellectuals,whether in the third world or the first, if it was noticed at all, was seen as one of degree; i.e. Muslim and non-Muslim intellectuals both had older loyalties, ideas and identities that belied their liberal ideals, and any apparent difference was a difference of degree…but as it is easier to see now, the difference of degree was always in the same direction, and in fact, it was significant enough that it could be described as a qualitative difference; not just a quantitative one. But this was not the common intellectual view. And exceptions like Samuel Huntington just proved the rule, with their “problematic” status in mainstream discourse.

Russia Nationalism
Russian nationalists take part in a ‘Russian March’ in Moscow on November 4, 2016 as they celebrate National Unity Day, the anniversary of the 1612 expulsion of Polish occupation forces from the Kremlin. MAXIMOV.

THIS challenge in fact proved most difficult for Western liberalism to process; the fact that large numbers (probably clear majorities) of Muslims simply did not accept the most fundamental assumptions of the post-enlightenment Western liberal worldview was hard to see because it was so hard to imagine. This was such an alien thought (especially to those on the Left side of the liberal spectrum) that it was repeatedly obfuscated under other categories (“poverty”, “colonialism”, etc). It was not seen because it seemed to undermine the universal validity of the whole liberal project. Better to not see it. But it continued to be inconveniently resistant to liberalism. And as events and examples multiplied, they evoked rethinking in other groups. Ultimately, the emperor started looking ragged, if not completely naked.  

One striking problem, for example, was the resistance of Muslim populations to joining the mainstream in countries they migrated to. SOME resistance to assimilation is certainly not unique and has been exhibited by many groups of immigrants, but it does seem that Muslim resistance remains greater than that exhibited by contemporary Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist migrants.

Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but when the same thing happens again and again, people start looking for explanations. Unfortunately, not necessarily for good explanations. 

Anyway, the point is that as Muslim resistance refused to go away, all the other alternatives to late-Western liberalism (many of them much stronger in material terms than any Muslim country or party) like Great Russian Nationalism and its Orthodox Christian backstop, Chinese nationalism with Confucian and fascist characteristics, nascent Japanese nationalism, Hardcore Hindutva in India; all of them became stronger because Islam had already wedged the door open and thrown open the possibility that the liberal project itself may be incoherent; may be hollow at the core; may not map to the real world; and may even be dangerous to non-Muslim groups who try to stick to it.

Hindu Nationalist poster
Poster of Hindu nationalist group, perhaps Hindu Sena.

In short, here is the thesis question for the day. If  and when modern humanism and liberalism (broadly defined) crashes and burns (who knows, it may not), will future historians look back and say that Islam was the rock on which it first and decisively broke?

Is Islam the kid who asked about the emperor’s clothes with such naive determination and clarity, and such stubborn unwillingness to accept “the facts”.that it opened the way to the future? A future which looks suspiciously like the illiberal past. Inquiring minds want to know.

Islam will conquer Europe
Source of photo unknown.

Hundreds of nuances are left unexplored in this very tentative and very over-simplified post. Argument and events may clarify.

PostScript one.

I used the “emperor’s new clothes” analogy deliberately. The point is not that some extremely powerful force called Islam single-handedly sabotaged the late-Western liberal order by itself. Or that free-market capitalism and Western democracy was about to put a chicken in every pot if Islam had not resisted.

The point is that the system may have been threatened by failure because of its internal contradictions and its own limitations anyway. As a friend put it: “just to be clear liberal order is broken because it doesn’t take cognizance of the fact that humanity is broken“. Maybe, maybe not. But whatever deficiencies existed WITHIN liberalism, Islam forced them into the open. It did so in such a way that it put the whole project in doubt in OTHER minds as well, leading to a vicious cycle of internal doubt, further decay, bad solutions, more doubt, more decay.

Protest at CNN HQ in Los Angeles
Chinese students protest at CNN HQ in LA on 19 April 2008.

And I take it for granted that every order has defects, but not all possible histories lead to the defects being exposed and the system crashing down. In a way, civilization is about the “soft landing” of various defects; their quiet or not-so-quiet removal and replacement while faith in the overall system still holds. And so on. The failure to “account for Islam” — for what Shadi Hamid of Brookings may call “Islamic exceptionalism” — exposed the liberal order to other critics and other doubts. These doubts can reinforce each other, there can be self-fulfilling prophecies of inevitable conflict and violence. Until Humpty Dumpty has a great fall.

Anti-Korean protest in Tokyo
Riot at anti-Korean march in Tokyo on 19 May 2013. Satoko Kawasaki photo.

I still hope this is not the case. That we will have a soft landing, not another world war and an age of revolutions. Because if the system falls apart, it will not be pretty; the interlude will be painful and nasty and brutish and not so short. Still, the fact is, it may fall; history is not over.

I do not share the Islamists own optimism about their coming triumph. A great reordering and a general war may be here. But if it is, it is likely it will be nasty and violent and most of the dead will be Muslims. Maybe there will even be a “scramble for Africa”, as more capable powers divide up the Middle East. The great Sunni hopes (Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia) all seem shaky and none of them may be in a position to establish order if the empire falls. In short, the collapse of the neo-liberal world order will have its winners and losers, but too many Muslims may end up as losers.

Of course, I could be wrong. I hope I am. We will see.

See some tweets around this topic here.

Postscript two.

Many people have objected that Islam is not that strong a force in the world, cannot defeat the West, etc. Here is my second attempt at clarification. That was not my point at all. As I tried to explain in the postscript, my thesis is not that Islam will defeat Liberalism. The thought process was more like this…

(1)  The weaknesses/incoherence/decay of the liberal world order are mostly internal to it. They may be simply a matter of the inevitable decay and corruption of any highly successful civilization (what may be called “catastrophic success”). Or they may be due to some blind spots in the world view, some failure to map adequately to human nature.  Whatever they are, they not caused by Islam. E.g. the liberal order failed in Cambodia (as it did in many other places) without Islam playing any role, but that failure did not lead to any sudden collapse in self-confidence within the metropole, or even in widespread realization by those outside the liberal order that the emperor may be weaker than she looks)

(2)  But Islam/Muslims are a large enough phenomenon that their failure to line up and join the party, their almost naive refusal to accept the brutal facts (that they are weak, that the liberal order is very mighty, that the washing machines and iphones come from the modern world and everyone wants those, so how could large populations possibly consciously opt for alternatives that do not prioritize washing machines?) is harder to sweep under the rug. They are not killing the liberal order (at least not yet, probably never), they are making its blind spots visible to many others who can do more serious damage.

They are creating doubt in the minds of the citizenry, but even more so, in the minds of the clerisy itself. Of course, the clerisy tries/tends to ignore or obfuscate the problem. “It is about poverty”. “It is a reaction to microaggressions”. “It is a revolt against imperialism or colonialism”. And so on. As it is, all these explanations (except maybe the microaggressions crap) have some truth to them. But not enough truth. Something else is also going on. It may be that human beings are not the convenience-maximizing homo economicus we assumed. Or they are not naturally egalitarian when it come to gender. Or whatever..the particular doubts engendered vary from person to person and group to group. But the recurrent eruptions of events that do not compute undermines confidence in the software.

(3)  As the doubts spread, they lead to a search for alternative software. “Maybe the racists were right”. “Maybe the religious revivalists were right”. “Maybe the cultural nationalists were right”. Maybe even that ignorant conman from Queens is right.. Whatever, the point is, the liberal order is losing the confidence of its own people. This can become a self-reinforcing downward spiral.

By the way, the alternatives being considered are NOT necessarily correct. That is part of the point. The liberal order could fail, not because its failure was inevitable or because its enemies are better, but because it lost asabiya, coherence, confidence, public support, shared delusion.

(4)  Future historians look back at WW3. I am just making this up, it may not be WW3, it may just be a lot of decentralized violence and decay, whatever, let your imagination run wild. Anyway, these imaginary future historians look back the fall of the Western enlightenment project, and one of them says “hey, you know, I think Islam was the rock on which this ship floundered. Not militarily or economically defeated by Islambut exposed by Islam. Shown to be naked. 

(5)  Finally, I remain convinced that this is not the end. It is just another turn of the spiral. The enlightenment will be back. Ideologies not centered on man, on this world, on rationality, on empiricism, will not take over the world. But the mess of 2032 will be a topic of study. And the role of Islam in undermining confidence in the first matrix will be a topic of study.

(6)  This is supposed to be a kind of thought experiment. To be put out there to get feedback. To start a debate. To learn something. I hope. Not as the literal true description of the coming mess of 2032 and its aftermath. More like a tiny effort to figure out what is going on, as our honorable President likes to say.


About the author, Omar Ali

“I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity. As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.”

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Islam, about the clash of civilizations, and especially these…

  1. The Fight for Islamic Hearts and Minds.
  2. Business 101 tells us what to expect next from jihadists: good news for them, bad for us.
  3. We are the attackers in the Clash of Civilizations. We’re winning.
  4. Handicapping the clash of civilizations: bet on the West to win big.
What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East
Available at Amazon.

About Islam’s clash with the modern world.

To understand the deep roots of the clash of civilizations, see What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East by Bernard Lewis (the great oriental studies scholar; see Wikipedia), published by Oxford University Press (20003). From the publisher…

“For centuries, the world of Islam was in the forefront of human achievement — the foremost military and economic power in the world, the leader in the arts and sciences of civilization. Christian Europe was seen as an outer darkness of barbarism and unbelief from which there was nothing to learn or to fear. And then everything changed. The West won victory after victory, first on the battlefield and then in the marketplace.

“In this elegantly written volume, Bernard Lewis, a renowned authority an Islamic affairs, examines the anguished reaction of the Islamic world as it tried to make sense of how it had been overtaken, overshadowed, and dominated by the West. In a fascinating portrait of a culture in turmoil, Lewis shows how the Middle East turned its attention to understanding European weaponry, industry, government, education, and culture. He also describes how some Middle Easterners fastened blame on a series of scapegoats, while others asked not “Who did this to us?” but rather “Where did we go wrong?”

“With a new Afterword that addresses September 11 and its aftermath, What Went Wrong? is an urgent, accessible book that no one who is concerned with contemporary affairs will want to miss.”


15 thoughts on “Omar Ali: Islam vs. Western liberalism; only one can win

  1. FM, This was very thoughtful and interesting. Thanks for posting.

    The author does not make explicit mention of the way the West spent at least a generation spending and helping fostering the anti-liberal Muslims that are now considered a threat, it would surprise me if he was unaware of that history though.
    It seems to me that this era of liberalism is defined by liberalism shifting from solving problems that exist outside itself to one where it solves problems that it created earlier in its existence.

    1. Trident,

      “The author does not make explicit mention of the way the West spent at least a generation spending and helping fostering the anti-liberal Muslims that are now considered a threat,”

      I doubt that is US policy. Perhaps it is just incompetence.

      “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
      — Hanlon’s Razor (see Wikipedia).

    2. It is US policy – pursued more or less openly across the Middle East. In the context of the Cold War, the US opposed secular left and Arab nationalist movements because they saw them as a direct threat to their interests. There’s a recurring pattern (going back to at least Churchill) of the West promoting extremist Sunni factions to further their own interests, always assuming they can be controlled forever.

      You don’t even need to go back into history – look at the ‘moderates’ the US is funding in Syria, look at who came out on top in Libya.

      Maybe, like, don’t ascribe aphorisms about individual behavior to the foreign policy of modern nation-states. Just because US policy in the ME is often very stupid, does not mean that they blundered Forrest-Gump-like into it.

    3. Jordan,

      “of the West promoting extremist Sunni factions to further their own interests, always assuming they can be controlled forever.”

      That sounds interesting. Can we see your list?

      The most-often cited case is Afghanistan’s war vs. the Russians. But there we channeled our aid through Pakistan. It’s not clear to what extent US leaders knew who was benefiting. Did we aid the Islamic fundamentalists by intent or stupidity? Certainly the American public didn’t know; see the presentation of Af’s insurgents in films.

      Counter-examples are Iraq and Af in the WOT, where we had secular leaders to install — who unfortunately never found roots in the nations they were to govern. Another counter-example is Egypt, where the US has consistently sided with the military-dominated governments.

      In Syria we opposed all the major players, both secular government and Islamic fundamentalists. Which worked as well as should be expected.

    4. Oh come on, like the US just gave money to Pakistan’s ISI and said ‘spend it however you want, we trust you’.(also I’m not exactly sure how Pakistani intelligence doesn’t qualify as an extremist Sunni faction) Here’s Brezenzski, a national security advisor bragging 20 years after the fact about advising Carter to fund the mujahideen while laughing off any concern about blowback:

      Or look at Steven Coll’s excellent Ghost Wars. Here’s a great section talking about ‘CIA-printed Holy Korans’ destined for Uzbek separatists:

      It’s not at all an open question whether this was US policy – US intelligence and politicians actively supported extremist Sunni militias to try to weaken the USSR. Ignoring all that to talk about some philosophy 101 stuff like ‘intentions or stupidity?’ is a non sequitur to avoid the obvious and well-documented fact that it was US policy.

      Also, none of those other cases are counter-examples. The US can support secular military regimes *and* religious extremists – those aren’t mutually exclusive categories. It’s loopy to make the argument that since all US policy in the ME isn’t in support of Islamists, then somehow none of it is. Egypt is the complete opposite of a counter-example cf. Sadat, Muslim Brotherhood, Afghanistan.

      And saying ‘opposing all major players in Syria’ is an odd way to say actively funneling arms and money to Salafi militias while also opposing ISIS.

      Just ignoring the giant-elephant-in-the-room example – the KSA – other recent examples of ‘the West promoting extremist Sunni factions’ are US support for anti-Gaddafi rebels and Israel aiding ISIS fighters.

    5. Jordan,

      “like the US just gave money to Pakistan’s ISI and said ‘spend it however you want, we trust you’”

      ISI may have lied to the CIA. It’s been done before, successfully.

      “bragging 20 years after the fact about advising Carter to fund the mujahideen”

      You are falsely assuming “mujahideen” means “islamic extremist.” Many of our allies in Af today were mujahideen. Read that article more closely.

      “Look at Islam in a rational manner and without demagoguery or emotion. It is the leading religion of the world with 1.5 billion followers. But what is there in common among Saudi Arabian fundamentalism, moderate Morocco, Pakistan militarism, Egyptian pro-Western or Central Asian secularism? Nothing more than what unites the Christian countries.”

      “‘CIA-printed Holy Korans’ destined for Uzbek separatists …Just ignoring the giant-elephant-in-the-room example – the KSA”

      SO you believe that all Muslims are Islamic fundamentalists hostile to the US. That accounts for your mistaken beliefs. Spend some time in Indonesia or Saudi Arabia or San Francisco. Learn something.

    6. “You are falsely assuming “mujahideen” means “islamic extremist.” Many of our allies in Af today were mujahideen.”

      This is just silly. Yes the mujahideen were/are extremist without question. Their beliefs are an extremist sect of Islam and the US support of these factions, pushed by anti-communist ideologues, has had a deeply harmful affect on our country, the history of the ME, and our relationship with it.

      “SO you believe that all Muslims are Islamic fundamentalists hostile to the US.”

      I said nothing of the sort. You asked why I thought ‘the West promoted extremist Sunni factions’ and I explained why, with examples and links. I never equated all Muslims with the Islamic fundamentalists that the US has supported for myopic and idiotic goals. In fact, my argument that the US has long seen it in their interest to support Islamist factions against progressive Arab politics is pretty much a complete refutation of your accusation and also a refutation of the claim “Islam vs. Western liberalism; only one can win”.

    7. “ISI may have lied to the CIA”
      This is pure speculation, contradicted by the abundant literature (I’ve already quoted some) that the US knew very well what they were doing in Afghanistan and that they were an active player. Again, this BS that US personnel knew nothing but what they were fed by ISI is a complete fiction, created whole cloth from your imagination.

  2. The barbarians are a lagging indicator. A lot had to go wrong before the Goths or whoever finally got around to sacking Rome. The barbarians didn’t so much kill the Roman Empire as act like carrion to dispose of the carcass. A lot had to go wrong before the refugees could rape their way through Germany. What Islam has done more than anything else is call attention to sheer utter incompetence of the people in charge. You shouldn’t be losing a war you’ve been at for sixteen years in a country of marginal strategic importance. Actually, you shouldn’t be fighting anywhere for sixteen years.

    The people in charge claim to be Really Smart People, and anything that makes them look incompetent undermines the legitimacy of the system. You can’t police the refugees you let into your country, and you can’t defeat their cousins in the hills back where they came from. Actually, you could keep order in your own streets if you wanted to and you could make better choices in dealing with the people in those faraway hills, but you refuse to learn.

    To quote from Kipling, “the dog returns to his vomit, the sow returns to her mire, and the burnt fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the fire.” I don’t now if the Gods Of The Copybook Headings are about to show up and do that terror and slaughter thing. But the way things are is not sustainable. We’re waiting for the barbarians. I don’t know what form they’ll take. But if they appear, they will, to borrow a phrase, be some sort of solution.

    1. The Man,

      “What Islam has done more than anything else is call attention to sheer utter incompetence of the people in charge.”

      One of the oddities of history is that peasants so often think the rich and powerful are dumb and incompetent. My favorite are the sneers about those dumb bank executives, none of whose children need work for the next ten generations.

      The ruling elites think the same of the peasants — with considerably more justification.

      If you cannot see why the elites of Europe and America are allowing in a flood of immigrants, then you don’t understand the situation.

      If you cannot see how the WOT has benefited our elites, despite the limited gains in Iraq and Afghanistan, then you don’t understand the war.

      “But the way things are is not sustainable.”

      Here are two posts giving an alternative perspective:

    2. If you cannot see why the elites of Europe and America are allowing in a flood of immigrants, then you don’t understand the situation.

      This reminds me of that one brilliant Engels’ quote “anti-semitism/[islamophobia] is the socialism of fools”

  3. “One of the oddities of history is that peasants so often think the rich and powerful are dumb and incompetent. My favorite are the sneers about those dumb bank executives, none of whose children need work for the next ten generations.”

    The fact that the rulers do something deliberately doesn’t make it or them smart. To them, everything may be going according to plan, but I think the plan has gone off the rails. We’ll see how it all works out. I don’t think Trump, for example, was part of the plan, but he seems to have been among the unintended results. There have been other unintended results as well, and there will be more.

    1. The Man,

      “The fact that the rulers do something deliberately doesn’t make it or them smart.”

      Yep. Just like the fact that NFL players can beat pretty much anyone else at football doesn’t mean that they’re strong and skilled. But that’s the way to bet.

      “To them, everything may be going according to plan …”

      Yep, for 50 years. See their plans. See their methods. But keep the faith in their stupidity, while they continue to win. Perhaps that’s a fair trade.

  4. “Yep. Just like the fact that NFL players can beat pretty much anyone else at football doesn’t mean that they’re strong and skilled. But that’s the way to bet.”

    It’s not the same thing. Those NFL players can show their stats. How many touchdowns, how many field goals, how many yards rushing. And if they aren’t good enough their team is punished with defeat and they themselves may not get another contract. The current ruling class did not win their empire, they inherited it from other, better men, along with a large margin of safety and security that they have been busy squandering for quite some time. I do not believe they can hold what they have against a serious challenge. They merely look formidable because they have not been challenged in a long time. They fit the description that someone (Ann Richards?) gave of Bush the Elder. They were born on third base and think they hit a triple.

    They could not have defeated Nazi Germany, or the Kaiser, or the Confederacy. They could not have coped with the Depression. And maybe this is something that happens with an empire on the skids. The Soviet gerontocarcy of the late Cold War could not have won the Russian Revolution or held off the German onslaught. They could not hold what they had inherited either, and when the final collapse came, it took far less time than anyone thought. So it will be with us.

    You have to see past the pretensions to what men can do. NFL players know this. So do peasants like me, in their own way. I’ll say no more on the topic, and get back to molesting yuppies who happen upon my still while hiking.

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