The Problem of Modernity?
What he does not seem to grasp – and the Bush administration is no better – is that America is the cutting edge of a modernity that has convulsed Islam as a faith and a civilization. This collision will likely become more violent, not less, as Muslims more completely enter the ethical free fall that comes as modernity pulverizes the world of our ancestors. Barack Obama”s newly devised “Mobile Development Teams,” which will bring together “personnel from the State Department, the Pentagon, and USAID … to turn the tide against extremism” are unlikely to make America more attractive to devout Muslims who know that America is the leading force in destroying the world that they love.
Gerecht thinks that the divide between East and West is, in the final analysis, a cultural one; that Muslim rage is a reaction to the confusion of modernity, a modernity that threatens to consume and eclipse the world they still wish to be part of. This ties into a larger debate about whether religious-cultural malaise is the cause of the Middle East”s myriad political problems (i.e. the lack of democracy), or, rather, if it is the product of the political problems. More simply, this is about how one wishes to draw causal arrows: is it culture > politics, or politics > culture? I”m not going to attempt to answer the question, although readers of DA will know where I stand.
However, I do agree with Gerecht that there are major cultural-religious problems in the Middle East, that cannot be solved by alleviating poverty, improving education, by promoting economic growth, or by changing specific foreign policies. There are serious grievances that reside deep in the psyche of a people who have found themselves, tragically, on the receiving end of history for too long. Few civilizations have sunk so precipitously, after rising so high, and this sense of what was and what now is, is the gap which drives the sense of collective humiliation which afflicts the Muslim world. These grievances will not go away over night, so the question is what should we do – or, rather, what can we do – in the meantime?
This is where democracy promotion becomes critical to how we define the nature of the struggle ahead of us. There will always be people who are angry at us. The important thing is to find ways to channel this anger – and the broader sense of grievance – through constructive, nonviolent methods.
Democracy does precisely this – it provides citizens peaceful outlets with which to express their religious, economic, and political grievances. But it must do more: democracy, if it is to provide an antidote to terror and extremism, must contribute to a real sense of moral and political agency among Arabs and Muslims. This is about allowing people to regain their sense of self-worth, by granting them the ability and the tools to control and affect their own lives, and to, finally, shake off the suffocating grip of autocracy. (This, among other things, is discussed in greater length in my piece in the current issue of Democracy).