Politico-religious cults and the end of history

When Francis Fukuyama published his essay The End of History? in 1989, few people in the world, including Muslims, had ever heard of Osama bin Laden or his al-Qaeda organisation. Only close intelligence insiders had this dubious honour at the time. Yet, as Fukuyama revisits his original thesis, bin Ladenism has become a dramatic symbol of radical and militant “Islam” the likes of which have not been seen since the Hashashin movement of the 11th century.

Like al-Qaeda, the Hashashin wreaked violence and destruction on their enemies. They brutally and spectacularly murdered their political opponents, typically between midnight and dawn, after consuming an ample amount of a cannabis derivative known as “hashish” (hence their name Hash shin, or “hashish users”). In less than half a century, their movement dwindled to a cult, and ultimately vanished by the end of the same century. The only surviving legacy of that bloody episode is the Arabic-rooted word which eventually found its way into western languages as “assassin”, one who carries out a plot to kill a prominent individual or politician.

The more than fourteen centuries of history of Islam and Muslim peoples are replete with movements: revivalist, protest, retreats, Sufis, messianic, reformist, radical, and revolutionary. In this respect, the 1.4 billion contemporary Muslims are not much different from the adherents of Christianity, Judaism or Buddhism. In fact Europe, and especially Germany, witnessed many similar movements in the 16th and 17th centuries, a period of profound socio-economic transformation. At that time, the process of “modernisation”was just getting underway, with all its concomitant large-scale dislocations.

Muslim societies of the Arab world finally underwent similar transformations following the oil boom of the 1970s. In such tumultuous times, individuals seek shelter and solace in “religion”, which often takes the shape of revivalist fundamentalism. It is also such periods that offer opportunities for the relatively deprived and ambitious to challenge the prevailing order, and for this new social formation to inch up or jump several steps on the class ladder. It is no accident that Osama bin Laden and Layman al-Swahili first challenged their own domestic ruling elites in the 1980s. Having failed, they shifted the battle to a global level, targeting what they dubbed the “mother of all evils”: the United States, its close allies (in Europe), and its clients elsewhere in the world.

Many of Fukuyama’s propositions in the afterword to the new edition of The End of History and the Last Man are adjustments and refinements of his original argument. He has smoothed out some of the sharper edges of the earlier thesis, re-contextualising it in light of both geopolitical events and new, equally sweeping worldviews, such as those propounded by Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1994) and Bernard Lewis in What Went Wrong? (2001).

I am more in agreement with Fukuyama’s updated version. As a native of Egypt and a lifelong observer of Islamic movements, I am quite impressed by the sensitivity and sharpness of his rebuttal to the metaphysical thrust of The Clash of Civilizations and to the orientalist nature of What Went Wrong?

In essence, Fukuyama forcefully takes issue with the Arab and/or Muslim exceptionalism thesis. He cites recent empirical data from the United Nations Development Programme’s Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) to argue that the overwhelming majority of Arab youth aspire more to the values and lifestyles of western societies than those symbolised by austere bin Laden-like theocrats.

A further substantiation of the AHDR was revealed by the University of Michigan’s World Values Survey (WVS) in 2003. Samples from several Muslim countries, including Arab Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine, revealed attitudinal commitments to various scales of western-style democracy that ranged between 84% and 96%. These results were similar or only slightly lower than those of their counterparts in European countries. Ronald Inglehart, who administered the study, noted after critically reviewing the WVS data that if there were any clash of civilisations at all, it is over sexual mores, family and marriage values, where differences were as great as 20%-30% on attitudinal scales between Muslim and western societies. But even in this area, it may be argued that attitudes in the West were as conservative fifty years ago as they are today in Muslim countries.

In the last three years, the march of events in the Middle East has confirmed some of Fukuyama’s assertions about the universal appeal of liberty and democratic governance.

Inclusive vs. exclusive politics

The success of the Islamic-based Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey and its counterpart with the same name in Morocco, which waged campaigns for parliamentary elections in 2002 with an impressive showing, had a tremendous demonstration effect on other Islamic-based movements. A dramatic case in point was Hamas, which called for a boycott of the most recent Palestinian presidential elections, but made a 180-degree turnabout a year later and waged a successful campaign for the parliamentary elections in January 2006 that put them on top and enabled them to form the new Palestinian government.

Something similar occurred with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who earlier in their career as a militant movement shunned democracy as a western import but in the last five years have waged forceful electoral campaigns to get into the Egyptian parliament. To everybody’s surprise, the Muslim Brotherhood increased their share from 5% of the vote in 1995 to nearly 20% in 2005. Many observers believe that they could have done even better had the election been free and fair. In brief, by 2005 democracy had become the only game in town in the Islamic world. No sober analyst would consider this a final commitment by Islamists to democracy, but the process of transforming them into Muslim democrats is clearly underway.

Another way of understanding radical Islamists is in terms of inclusive versus exclusive politics. So long as the entrenched autocrats of the Muslim world continue to deny their peoples equal rights of participation, there will always be disaffected dissidents who may resort to extreme ideologies and violent practices. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries excluded Muslims rallied to theocrats, the bin Ladens, al-Zawahiris and al-Zarqawis, to combat the autocrats, the Mubaraks, Assads, Fahds and Musharrafs. The autocrats and theocrats are mirror-images: both are exclusive.

The antidote for both is a politics of inclusion, i.e. democratic governance. If that is an integral part of “modernity” in Fukuyama’s revised discourse, then as Muslims increasingly join the “third wave” of democracy (started in Portugal in 1974, and already engulfing some ninety countries), the likes of al-Qaeda may very well join al-Hashashin in the dustbin of history.

This article is part of an openDemocracy debate on Francis Fukuyama’s afterword in the second paperback edition of The End of History and the Last Man (Simon & Schuster, 2006)

Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a leading Egyptian pro-democracy activist and a sociologist. This article was distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.