Given American policymakers’ ignorance of Islam, “I am just worried about people like me running around with big theories trying to set foreign policy,” stated famed intellectual historian Francis Fukuyama in Washington, D.C. His confession occurred at “Democracy in the Arab World: The Obama Legacy and Beyond,” a recent conference that did little to alleviate the knowledge deficit among hackneyed Islamism apologists.
Fukuyama’s luncheon address at the downtown JW Marriot luxury hotel focused on the cultural factors that aided the development of modern societies. While China benefited from the appearance 2,300 years ago of the “first modern, relatively impersonal state,” Fukuyama said, the “Arab world [is] where I think the fundamental problem is” for human progress today. Although he worried that the U.S. had not made an effort to understand Muslim societies comparable to its Cold War study of Russia, Fukuyama’s own knowledge of Islam was spotty. He described an often repressive and all-encompassing sharia law as a mere “balance to political power.”
Referencing the late scholar Ernest Gellner, Fukuyama maintained that “contemporary Islamism is basically just a different version of European nationalism in the nineteenth century.” Just as Europeans transitioning from intimate rural communities to urban anonymity during industrialization sought a new identity, Islamists invoke a “universal umma that extends all the way from Morocco to Jakarta.” Similarly, this Islamism appeals to alienated second-generation European Muslim immigrants. Left unexamined was whether the cosmic worldview of a faith like Islam has considerably more ideological content, and can incite far more zeal, than nationalist allegiances, particularly in an increasingly globalized world.
At least Fukuyama didn’t minimize jihadist terrorism, unlike the preceding panelist, anti-Israel commentator Peter Beinart. He decried the “rise of ISIS and a massive increase fueled by cable news [coverage] of the threat of terror that emerged in 2014” and reflected upon President Barack Obama’s shared view that the “threat of terrorism had been exaggerated.” Obama rejected former President George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” as the “new Cold War, the new World War II; there was fascism and communism, and now there was jihadism.”
In contrast to totalitarianism’s past appeal to, and rule over, millions, few “believed that you could build a new prosperous world based on the ideas of Osama bin Laden,” Beinart declared. His sanguine analysis ignored that faith-based jihadists have eternal timeframes capable of minimizing material setbacks. Contrary to the Third Reich’s twelve-year nightmare and the Cold War’s long twilight victory, Pope Francis’s warning of a “third [world] war … fought piecemeal” with jihadist movements and regimes worldwide has no end in sight.
Conference literature omitted the unsavory connection between this new kind of Third World War and Azmi Bishara, an Israeli-Arab writer and accused Hezb’allah operative who gave his conference keynote address online from Qatar. With terrorism charges hindering an American entry visa, this general director of the Qatari Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) hosted the conference via ACRPS’s Washington, D.C. affiliate. The former Knesset member fled Israel in 2007 to escape charges of helping Hezb’allah plot terrorist attacks against Israeli targets.
Reiterating his anti-Zionist take on Palestinian “territory occupied in 1948,” Bishara’s address text condemned Israel’s “colonial apartheid” and claimed conspiratorially that “Israel’s security was the fetish for whose sake [the] rights of people were sacrificed” during the “Arab Spring.” Contradicting Fukuyama’s speculations, Bishara insisted that “it is not the Islamization of society that makes people afraid of change” and that the “obstacle for democracy in the Arab world is not the political culture.” His assessment that “post-Islamic Brotherhood” parties with an “Islamic identity,” such as the “Christian Democratic parties of Europe,” are emerging in Tunisia and Turkey was wildly optimistic.
Likewise, Princeton University political science professor and boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) supporter Ms. Amaney Jamal labored to blame Israel for democracy’s poor prospects in the Arab world. In yet another example of what Islam scholar Martin Kramer critiques as the false “linkage” between Israel and sundry Middle East problems, one of her slides listed the “Arab-Israeli Conflict as an Obstacle to Reform.” Another slide alleged that the “percent who say it is an impediment” from Arab countries ranges from 84 percent (Lebanon) to 33 percent (Algeria). Because dictatorships seek international investment by suppressing anti-Israel sentiment, Jamal maintained that the Arab-Israeli conflict is “always going to keep investors out of the region.”
ACRPS associate researcher Abdulwahab Al-Qassab strained credulity elsewhere by stating that in 2003, “Iraq, actually, before the invasion, was a secular state” and that in “Arab society in Iraq, we had many strong unifying factors.” Such claims reflect al-Qassab’s outlandish assertion at a 2014 conference that Iraqi “society was known throughout history to be a well-integrated one, notwithstanding its diversity.” Critical observers should maintain a healthy skepticism toward a former major-general under the brutal Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein promoting “diversity.”
More realistic were the comments of Qassab’s fellow ACRPS associate researcher, Marwan Kabalan, and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Arab studies scholar Michele Dunne. Kabalan rightfully noted that “moderate” Syrian rebels are “lacking the ideological motivations that exist among the jihadis,” who “are actually bound by a very strong ideological bond.”
Dunne emphasized that Westernization had made Tunisia, the Arab world’s current hope for democracy, a “bit different from other Arab countries.” The “population was in general more educated … women were more liberated and empowered … the middle class was a bit larger … [and] the military was less involved in politics,” while Tunisia “was more connected to Europe.” “All of these things turned out to be very, very important,” she concluded.
Such realism reflects Fukuyama’s insight that not all cultural beliefs equally favor the development of peaceful and prosperous societies with liberty under law. Critical inquiry into Islamic doctrine and its troubled relationship with democracy will be necessary for overcoming the knowledge deficit in the free world’s latest struggle against tyranny. Whether ACRPS, based in Muslim Brotherhood-supporting Qatar, can alleviate this deficit is highly questionable.