Since the beginning of the Cold War, Western political culture has been defined by a widespread commitment to liberalism, a political philosophy premised on individual choice, non-negotiable rights (especially those of minorities), state neutrality, and constraining the role of “private” religious belief in the public sphere.
Recently, however, a growing number of Western intellectuals and politicians have begun to call this commitment to liberalism into question. Populist movements in Europe and the United States have revived illiberal notions of ethnonationalist identity and belonging, while authors such as the French novelist Michel Houellebecq and the American political theorist Patrick Deneen have written best-selling books suggesting that liberal society, because it brackets the most fundamental questions of what it means to be human, is unable to sustain itself over the long run. Instead of doubling down on liberalism, these critics have alternated between proposing serious alternatives and offering laments of heroic resignation.
On this, at least—how to conceive of national identity and alternatives to liberalism—the West finds itself lagging behind the Middle East. More than seven years ago, the fall of stagnant autocracies during the Arab Spring opened up a vibrant, contentious debate over the role of religion in public life and the nature of the nation. Islamists and non-Islamists had different non-negotiable commitments: Would the state be ideologically neutral or could it entrust itself with a religious and political mission?
Despite the hopes of Western observers, liberalism fared poorly in these Arab Spring–era debates. Without a preexisting liberal consensus in Middle Eastern societies, alternatives to liberalism—namely Islamism—weren’t merely considered; in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, they were voted into power.
Islamist movements, which believed that Islam and Islamic law should be a play a central role in public life, had long promised an alternative to liberalism. For them, true freedom meant the freedom to be as religious as one wished to be—and in conservative societies this tended to be quite religious. As the former Muslim Brotherhood figure Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh explained it to me, “Parliament won’t grant rights to gays because that goes against the prevailing culture of society, and if [members of parliament] did that, they’d lose the next election. Whether you are a communist, socialist, or whatever, there is already a built-in respect for sharia.” Islam, in its original form, assumed that one’s primary allegiance was to a religious community rather than a nation.
The outlines of a mythical Islamic society tended to remain vague beyond the general preference for more social conservatism rather than less. Details would always be difficult: Islamic law, revealed as it was in the seventh century, wasn’t designed for the nation-state or, for that matter, the modern international system. Islam, in its original form, assumed that one’s primary allegiance was to a religious community rather than a nation.
In any case, prior to the Arab Spring, the prospect of actually wielding power seemed remote to most Islamists, so it was easier to suspend the more difficult questions about what an actual Islamic society might look like. The ranks of Muslim Brotherhood branches were filled with doctors, engineers, and teachers—not thinkers or theorists. Perhaps counterintuitively for alleged theocrats, they were weak on theology. Since most voters in religiously conservative societies were already illiberal, Islamist parties fell back on an easy assumption: whatever government was elected would reflect the illiberalism of the electorate. Grand designs weren’t necessary, at least not yet.
Yet the Islamists’ ascendancy was short-lived. In most Arab Spring countries, democratic gains were quickly reversed, or, in Egypt, erased entirely. Any real debate over foundational questions was suspended, and contending with how, or to what extent, to implement sharia became beside the point. Perennial questions around the modern state’s relationship to Islamic law will of course matter again—eventually. In the context of debilitating authoritarianism and political persecution, however, matters of mere survival take precedence.
CHURCH AND STATE
Discussions of ideology and identity emerge early on in democratic transitions, as they did during the Arab Spring. But these tend to hover at a superficial level. To think deeply about post- or anti-liberalism—and to communicate those ideas to a larger audience—requires a minimal level of free expression and inquiry that is currently absent in most of the Middle East. As a result, the heart of debates on alternatives to liberalism has shifted from east to west. The election of President Donald Trump, the United States’ first illiberal democratic president, and the rise of right-wing populism across Europe have energized a crop of newly prominent post-liberal thinkers, who are now challenging the indigenous intellectual traditions that were, for decades, dominant in the West.
With his book After Virtue, published in 1981, the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre announced himself as one of the most influential critics of Enlightenment liberalism. He argued that Western societies had given up any pretense of “genuine moral consensus.” In the liberal imagination, he wrote, “we are born not with a past, only with a present and, of course, a future.” Presaging the rage over political correctness, he railed against “the attempt to impose morality by terror,” which he referred to as a “desperate expedient.” These debates—always important, but once obscure—have now gone mainstream. To read today’s post-liberals is to find echoes of MacIntyre nearly everywhere: liberalism, once a political tradition, has become an ambitious ideological project with little tolerance for true challengers. Vices are embraced as virtue, religion has become strange, truth relative, and loneliness endemic.
So far, Islamists—many of whom would find “end of liberalism” laments intriguing—seem largely unaware of this new Western mood. Yet parallels exist. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—unlike its counterparts in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, which are consumed by civil war—has featured some of the more consequential internal debates of any major Islamist movement. First of all, the group has experienced unprecedented internal divisions, which two members of the Brotherhood, Amr Darrag and Ammar Fayed, touch on in their contributions to a volume that I edited with Will McCants, Rethinking Political Islam. A January 2016 arbitration initiative in Doha, led by the controversial preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, failed to close the gap between the two major factions. Intentional communities, particularly illiberal ones, have only found success within liberal societies.
Although the divides in the Egyptian Brotherhood are ostensibly about organizational and tactical issues, they hide a deeper ideological divide over what it means to be at once a religious movement and a political party. Movements and parties are, after all, fundamentally oriented toward different goals—religious education, social service provision, and purity for the former and winning elections for the latter. Within the more reform-oriented faction, there is a group of younger Brotherhood members and sympathizers who are interested constraining the state and even weakening it (and before anything else probably purging it). For them, the very existence of the nation-state—and Islamists’ longtime obsession with gaining control of it through elections—has corrupted these movements’ religious foundations. They would rather be left alone, free from state interference, to rebuild their movements from the bottom up.
These younger Islamists are unlikely to be familiar with the American orthodox Christian writer Rod Dreher, who has popularized the idea of post-liberal “intentional communities” as part of a wider argument that neither electoral politics nor the state will allow Christians to live out their values. Yet they might as well be. As one former Brotherhood activist put it to me recently, the guiding principle is “strong society, weak state.” “You can’t use the state to implement your intellectual vision,” he explained, “especially when that vision is different from the majority’s.”
The irony is that intentional communities, particularly illiberal ones, have only found success within liberal societies. Short of a liberal society, the most promising route for those wishing to refashion society along different lines might be semi-failed states, where the central government lacks control over large swaths of territory. It is little surprise, then, that Lebanon—arguably the world’s most successful failed state—features its own distorted version of intentional communities, in which people’s primary loyalty is sectarian rather than national, and groups live together in a cold peace. But for the localist model to hold any real promise probably requires reckoning with premodern approaches to community. In the Muslim imagination, the Prophet Muhammad’s proto-state of Medina was effectively an intentional community of like-minded believers—and the foundation of Islam’s original intertwining of religion and politics.
All of these premodern and modern inspirations share one common feature: a weak state that is decentralized, enjoys limited jurisdiction, and has a diminished interest in managing the lives of its citizens. Whether in the West or the Muslim world, these sorts of states are difficult to find. The modern state, by definition, is expansive. If the work of undoing what has been already been done seems daunting, that’s because it is. Still, that is unlikely to stop anyone from trying.