Some Good Might Come of the Islamic State

The Islamic State’s fanaticism might mark the complete and final failure of political Islam.

Minaret of a mosque in Cairo, Egypt, November 7, 2008
Minaret of a mosque in Cairo, Egypt, November 7, 2008 (Hossam el-Hamalawy)

The Iraqi and Syrian fanatics who call themselves the Islamic State are quite possibly the most brutal and murderous lot political Islam has produced, at least in living memory. But the ordeal they have wrought on everyone who doesn’t their zealotry could have a silver lining, argues Adam Garfinkle at The American Interest.

Garfinkle, a Middle East expert, believes the Islamic State represents the last hurrah of militarized political Islam.

This is the end. It can’t get any more radical, primitivist, delusional, nihilistic and self-destructive. When it crashes and burns, nearly every sentient Muslim will see clearly that Islam, in this distorted militarized form, is certainly not “the answer.”

The sectarian violence and state disintegration going on in the Middle East right now mark “the end of an attempt to wrap a certain non-Western culture — the Arab one — in the garb of the Westphalian state and in a form of modernity that is Western in its institutional roots,” according to Garfinkle. Western notions of impersonal authority and political compromise, necessary for a stable, sovereign state, never resonated in the Arab world because those notions emerged from a particular Western culture or mentality that is altogether alien to most Arabs.

The attempt to nevertheless impose such notions on the Arabs at least partially contributed to their decades of despotism and instability. States whose borders were largely drawn by European imperialists decades earlier were invariably unstable if their populations did not share a sense of kinship or could not accept that sometimes political decisions needed to be taken that did not benefit every clan, ethnicity or tribe in the country.

“Unable to go forward in the vehicle of what was for the Arab countries the artificial Western state,” Garfinkle believes “the ‘return of Islam’ was bound to happen at some point or other.”

Here was one idea that did not come from outside the region and that brought with it a sense of community that transcended ethnic and sectarian identities. Political Islam might have seemed a solution but it clearly never was. The states that tried it traded one despotism for another and altogether ended up poorer than they were. The secular Arab dictators might have had at least an inkling of economic sense. Their religious successors were illiberal in every sense of the word and would further ruin states already struggling to keep up in a globalizing world.

Yet political Islam did not give up. Rather its most ardent proponents resorted to increasingly violent methods, the Islamic State being the latest — and hopefully the last — excess of this rotten ideology.

When it fails, Garfinkle hopes Arabs will finally develop modern political institutions of their own.

They will in time institutionalize forms of governance that do work and they will evince forms of accountability and lawfulness that will work, too. These forms will not, because they cannot for indelible reasons of political sociology, look exactly like Western forms or even inhabit territorial shapes Westerners take for granted.

Which is fine. Western institutions are not an end in themselves. They exist to ensure that individuals can live in freedom; that people with different beliefs and of different political persuasions can live peacefully and with dignity in the same society; that disputes can be resolved without resorting to force.

Surely, most Arabs would prefer to live in such a society as well. What they have to figure out for themselves is how to make that happen.

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