Post-Liberalism, East and West

Islamism and the Liberal State

A protestor holds a cross and Koran in Cairo, December 2012. Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi / Reuters

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

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