The limits of pluralism, and the necessity of an identity

I just finished Vali Nasr’s Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World. Very much in the mold of Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. Nasr is the author of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, and the son of the prominent Islamic philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr (of the Traditionalist School). The prose is engaging, and Nasr is both erudite and analytically focused. As an ethnic Persian the depth of his knowledge definitely exhibits particular biases, Asian Islam beyond Pakistan hovers on the margins of his narrative, less out of intent and more out of limitations of the author’s own knowledge base I suspect. Nevertheless, the focus on Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan is certainly not hobbling in any way, as these are very important Muslim nations.

Forces of Fortune is very much about the social implications of material conditions. In other words, the relative economic stagnation of the core Muslim world in relation to the developed world or the BRIC nations. Nasr’s argument is that in the 20th century Muslim elites saw in the West an object of emulation, and fixated on the exoteric aspects without comprehending the deeper structural preconditions of prosperity. Kemal Ataturk exemplified this, he forced Turks to re-conceptualize themselves as Europeans by battering them, both psychologically and literally. He demanded that Turks look the part of Europeans, that they change their dress and switch to a Roman alphabet from an Arabic script. In addition to the cultural shifts Ataturk also set the tone through an emphasis on top-down institutional development, in particular state control and guidance of the economy. In Nasr’s telling Islamic revivalism was a natural and reflexive reaction by the lower middle class and petite bourgeoisie to this assault from on high. They were culturally and economically marginalized by Kemalism, Nasserism and the Shah’s White Revolution, and the present is their revenge. Though we are aware of the international scope of Islamic revivalism, the tendrils of Kemalism, and the example of Turkey as an Islamic nation who beat back European colonialism on the fields of battle, also extend across the world. Not only did Ataturk influence Reza Pahlavi, but his model was influential in the thinking of autocrats such as Pervez Musharraf.

But to a great extent Kemalism and its imitators, such as Arab Nationalism, have failed. Iran has an Islamic Republic, Pakistan’s infatuation with Islamic identity seems to grow apace, while most of the Arab world has repudiated secularism. It is ironic and oft-observed that the 2003 invasion of Iraq toppled one of the more secular regimes of the Arab world, and it is surely no coincidence that the past 6 years have seen a mass emigration of Christians and Mandaeans from Iraq. In Turkey an Islam-tinged party is now in power, and seems likely to be so for the foreseeable future.

What does this “mean for our world”? Forces of Fortune does not pull its punches, Nasr asserts again and again that the new regimes predicated on conservative Islamic values and neoliberal economics driven by bottom-up forces will be more prudish and misogynistic than what has come before, the dirigiste and secular autocracies. Whereas in The Future of Freedom Fareed Zakaria expresses concern over “Illiberal Democracy,” Nasr welcomes it more or less, because he sees no alternative. Top-down attempts to modernize Muslim nations have failed. Bottom-up processes whereby development is driven by capitalist forces may well succeed over the long term. Forces of Fortune observes that the Calvinist capitalist revolution was only a sequel of massive Wars of Religion and factional strife touched-off by the Reformation. What Vali Nasr is proposing is that there is no historical “Free Lunch,” no gain without pain.

At the end of the book I was convinced as to the descriptive truth of the argument. It seems clear that top-down autocracies have “sell-by” dates. In particular, the ideological gruel which the ruling elites of Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan provide is too thin to offer a viable long term alternative to Islam for the masses. In the case of the French Revolution, or communism, or even socialist or labor movements, there was an ideological alternative to religious institutions. With the expiration of the radical Left, and the lack of appropriate economic preconditions for liberal democratic pluralism, it seems that the question is not Islamism, but what type of Islamism. That is certainly the answer of Iraq, which presents an Islamism with a more human face than Iran, Sudan, or even our ally Saudi Arabia. Nasr also makes the case that the AKP, the party in power in Turkey, is fostering a more vibrant economic system precisely because of its origins in the non-governmental commercial class, which grew up without the patronage of the state because of their Islamic, and therefore outsider, identity.

One reason that the AKP has been able to hold onto power is pressure from the United States and the European Union. In return the AKP has not enacted a broad Islamic program, though there has been shifts toward cultural conservatism (e.g., misogynistic rape legislation, the widespread teaching of Creationism in schools). It seems quite clear that the more entrenched public Islam becomes in Turkish life, the less likely it is that Turkey will become a member of the European Union. And yet it is also clear that enforced top-down secularity through military fiat is also not a condition which will allow Turkey to join the European Union. Ataturk may have declared Turkey European, but history and structural conditions on the ground contradict such an assertion. Nasr seems to suggest, and envision, a future where Islamic nations might have a recognizably liberal order, predicated on individual rights, free enterprise and acceptance of pluralism. But this is the future, and not a near one. Rather, societies need to evolve in a matter which admits to the reality of path dependency and keeping with their traditions and customs.

As a secular person I do not believe in supernatural entities. And yet empirically it seems clear that a society not dominated by supernatural presuppositions is a peculiar thing, and they have become numerous only within the past few decades. There are obviously certain preconditions which are necessary, and it does not seem that any Islamic nation fulfills those preconditions. Within the broad commonwealth of Western nations there are variations in terms of the ubiquity of secular presuppositions, from the United States and Poland, to Sweden and France. But the presuppositions which one accepts or neglects are the same, that is, Christian or Christianesque presuppositions. In the Islamic world the presuppositions are different, and the spectrum of religiosity explores a relatively alien dimensionality. The secularism of the Epicureans (Greek), Carvaka (Indian) and that of Xunzi (Chinese) exhibit family resemblances because secularism is a spare and clean universe. But religious beliefs and practices are more diverse, and can often seem unintelligible. Civilizations can operate with a spectrum of piety, but I suspect that tensions among pieties would add too much to the mix.

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