Fundamentalism is not exclusively, or even primarily, a religious phenomenon.
The classical conception of liberalism includes, among other things, a commitment to free markets, universal law, democracy, pluralism, and secularism. While often held to be universal values, these ideologies are not intrinsically compatible or necessarily intertwined—in fact, these ideas were not even historically compatible. In many contexts, they diverge and conflict. Individually and collectively, they are neither necessary nor inevitable ideologies; they may even be inferior to alternative social arrangements (such as state capitalism, illiberal democracy, legal pluralism, etc.) at realizing the will and interests of a given population.
While much of the narrative regarding the “Arab Spring” has focused on the supposed tension between Islamism and Liberalism—these false-dichotomies overlook the essential problem, which is a conflict internal to liberalism in simultaneously promoting democracy, secularism, and universal law in many contexts, to include the MENA (Middle East & North African) region. Accordingly, Western attempts to instantiate or promote their own values and institutions in these societies is likely to foster instability and sectarian strife rather than pluralism and cooperation.
The incoherence of Western values is made nowhere more transparent than in attempts to spread these values (which are arrogantly presumed to be universal). While paternalism is sometimes justified (as in the obvious case of parents to children, from whence the term is derived), there are a number of situations in which people should be distrustful of it. This skepticism should be particularly strong in those situations where the interests of the people designing and executing systems and/or policies diverge from the people most affected by them. Also, insofar as there are asymmetries in cost/risk for those designing and executing the systems/policies, compared to those for whom the policies were intended. In both cases, the greater this divergence, the greater the cause for prudence, vigilance, and even resistance.
These disparities are not only present, but grave, in the case of the Western powers vis a vis the Middle East. While there should be little doubt that American and European policymakers sincerely believe in liberalism as the ideal method of arranging societies, the brute fact remains that Western policies, throughout the “Arab Spring,” were motivated primarily by geopolitical and economic interests. Accordingly, it is both natural and appropriate that the people of the MENA region be, at the least, highly suspicious of these ideologies and institutional models.
In all cases, paternalism presumes a superiority of the pater over the governed, which is both offensive and objectionable. In fact, liberal paternalism is incoherent: insofar as the purpose of liberal institutions is to promote and defend human dignity and autonomy, it seems strange that the people whose dignity and autonomy are at stake are not permitted to themselves define justice and goodness (whose conceptions may diverge from those of Western elites), and themselves formulate and instantiate institutional structures to promote these conceptions. Instead, ethical theorists believe in principle (and U.S. and E.U. policymakers, in practice), that the obligation of all people is merely to bring their indigenous institutions into line with the “universal” values , as defined in Western cultures. It is assumed, without a hint of irony, that universal submission and compliance with these norms are the best means of securing autonomy and pluralism.
Imperial (Ethical) Imperatives
How was the supposed universality of Western values established? Not by empirically investigating what other cultures believe, and tailoring one’s own ethos as needed to conform to this “common ground;” it was not even established by empirically exploring the popular ethos in Western society or building from historical examples. Instead, this universality was decreed by Western elites and then forcibly established as the norm: first within Europe, and then throughout the world (these remain the primary methods).
The modern discipline of ethics has its origins in the “Enlightenment.” While ostensibly irreligious, Enlightenment-era thinkers interpreted rationalism within the framework of the Christian messianic ideal; the result was an essentially evangelical form of rationalism, complete with a mythical Golden Age (Greco-Roman antiquity), followed by a fall from grace (the collapse of Rome, followed by the Dark Ages) — there was hope for the redemption and perfectibility of man, rendering conversion an imperative. There was even the belief that Reason would save us from our societal problems and eventually usher an age of universal peace and prosperity (positivism and its forbearers). Out of this hope developed the need to destroy “false religions,” which, within this framework, meant religion itself.
Enlightenment ideology was able to “take” among Europeans by explicitly playing on messianic symbols (this helps explain why efforts to “Enlighten” the MENA region failed: Islam, albeit not for the reasons typically evoked). There were two spectacular examples of this: following the popular failure of Robespierre’s Cult of Reason (Le Culte de la Raison), which attempted to worship reason itself, without the positing of any deity—the intelligentsia of France attempted to rationalize the divine through the Cult of the Supreme Being (Le Culte de l’Etre Supreme); this “supreme being” was essentially the god of the philosophers: a being who, while the creator of the universe, was neither all-powerful nor infinitely sovereign. Instead, this god was constrained by Reason: the supreme principle in the universe to which even “god” must be subordinated. Although both of these cults ultimately failed (despite being the only legal “religions” in France at the time), they are indicative of how the Enlightenment proceeded.
Nomenclature notwithstanding, the Enlightenment did not come about as a result of the majority of the population simply “coming to see the light” through Reason or even ideological evangelism. Instead, the Enlightenment began with the Reign of Terror (a secular “Inquisition”)— wherein nobles and religious leaders were rounded up, tortured, and killed en masse by a radical minority of extremists. Religious monuments were destroyed, churches were re-appropriated. Thereafter, these elites seized power (through the vacuum their killings had created) and instituted an authoritarian state wherein those who were suspected of harboring counter-revolutionary sentiments were tortured and/or killed with little-to-no due process. It was illegal to display religious indicators on one’s house or one’s person, it was illegal to congregate for religious rituals (upon penalty of death)—and it stayed that way for decades. If one wanted to survive (or thrive) in France, one had to adopt secularist/ rationalist positions.
When Napoleon took power, he decriminalized Christianity, although this was only to more effectively promote Enlightenment ideology, in light of the abysmal failure of the previous cults. The priests were subordinated to the State rather than Rome, and they were made to tailor their messages in the service of Enlightenment ideals. The church’s sphere of influence was dramatically narrowed due to his policy of laicite. And then, Napoleon spread this form of government by the sword to the rest of Europe (the Napoleonic Wars)—instituting laicite on all conquered peoples, and ultimately crushing the Holy Roman Empire militarily. Colonialism and imperialism vis a vis the rest of the world was explicitly justified under the pretext of spreading these ideologies further (a secular “Crusade”)– holding that it was the “white man’s burden” to bring the Enlightenment to regressive peoples. This mandate follows rather naturally from conceptions of universal values and a universal good. How could the rejection of these norms be understood as anything other than a defect, were they truly universal? How could it be anything except ethical to “liberate” people from such a disorder?
Despite Western pretenses towards objectivity, liberalism is a cultural and historical artifact, not a moral fact about the world. Attempts to universalize these cultural norms and institutions are necessarily ethnocentric and paternalistic—linked historically and conceptually to imperialism. Rather than attempting to emulate these models, which are increasingly failing even in America and Europe—the people of the MENA region have an obligation to one another, and indeed to the world, to seize upon this period of instability in order to find new ways of approaching and resolving the challenges of the times. The first step in this process must be a rejection of the supposed universality and inevitability of liberal ideologies and institutions.
Fun Fact: Even beyond Robespierre and Napoleon, most modern overtly irreligious governments (whether fascist or communist) were spearheaded by totalitarian dictators and sustained by oppressive and pervasive security apparati: Stalin (Russia), Mussolini (Italy), Mao (China), Kim Il-Sung (N. Korea), the Pan-Arab Secular Nationalists (Assad, Nasser, Hussein in Syria, Egypt and Iraq respectively), Reza Shah (Iran), Attaturk (Turkey), et alia.