Worse Is Better Let the fundamentalists take power
February 5, 2002 8:55 a.m.
Stanley Kurtz recently defended the veiling of Muslim women as a logical consequence of cousin marriage and urbanization, and criticized the feminist impulse to coerce gender equality on the Islamic world. This is an appropriately Burkean impulse that our triumphalists, Right and Left, should learn from.
But it doesn't really matter what we think, because the veil will disappear only when Muslims outgrow it, and generally embrace modernity. Since the veil is just a symptom of backwardness, not a cause, the real question, which lots of people have been asking, is: How can Islamic societies modernize?
There's only one realistic answer: Let the fundamentalists take over. They will so thoroughly screw things up, so completely alienate the bulging cohorts of young people in the Islamic world, that these societies will turn away from Islam itself, at least as it exists today.
And this isn't just clever punditry. However creative and tolerant Islam may have been in pre-modern times, it is increasingly clear that Islam is simply not compatible with modernity. This is not to say that there aren't many individual Muslims who reconcile a deeply held faith with contemporary circumstances, but rather that Muslim societies, as a whole, are simply incapable of modernizing. Even Turkey, which three generations ago use extreme brutality to create a homogenous nation-state and suppress Islam, is deeply divided between Muslim radicals and post-Muslim secularists and has no hope of joining the advanced societies unless something fundamental changes.
In Iran, the mullahs have been in power for an entire generation and, as Edward Shirly suggests in Know Thine Enemy: A Spy's Journey into Revolutionary Iran, the Islamic faith itself has been discredited among the people. It is no coincidence that Iran is the only civilized place (i.e., not the Sudan or Afghanistan) where radical Islam has taken power, and it is now seeing a growing rejection of Islam. In fact, when the Islamic regime falls, as it eventually must, Iran is likely to become the first country to see massive, voluntary renunciation of Islam. Millions of people, especially young urbanites, will turn to the Bahai faith, since it is an indigenous Iranian religion. (Invented in the 19th century, Bahai is to Islam what Unitarianism is to Christianity . Buddha, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed were all prophets, all men are brothers, "I'd like to buy the world a Coke," etc.). An Iran where Islam is relegated to a minority faith would inevitably be a lot more open to modernity.
In Algeria, where the Islamic radicals haven't taken over (yet) but have wreaked unimaginable havoc, the indigenous Berber minority, already alienated from the Arabized majority for ethnic reasons, is increasingly turning to Christianity. The behavior of the fundamentalists has led many in the Berber heartland of Kabylie to conclude, in the words of a newspaper account translated last year in The Middle East Quarterly, that "Christianity is life, Islam is death."
There would be drawbacks to the rise of radical Muslim governments in North Africa, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. Most obviously, radical terrorist groups might find a much warmer welcome, raising fears of another September 11. But states sponsor terror when they calculate they can get away with it without being punished; the Taliban's fate should be instructive in that regard, unless we revert to Clintonian fecklessness in our foreign policy. Though potentially still dangerous to us, radical Islam might actually be easier to contain if it takes power in the Middle East, because even governments committed to revolution prefer to avoid being annihilated.
Promoting the development of a modern, democratic Middle East must be one of our chief foreign-policy objectives for this century. At the same time, Islam is necessarily incompatible with modernity; there is nothing to suggest that keeping the lid on fundamentalism will cause it to go away and be replaced by a liberal, tolerant Islam open to modernization . quite the opposite, as we are seeing in Turkey. So it is in our long-term interest to permit the establishment of Islamic regimes, and then step aside to let Islamic society destroy itself. It's not without risk, but there is no alternative.
©Copyright 2002, National Review