November 1, 2005 | National Review Online

Islam, Democracy & Assimilation

A year after the van Gogh murder, Francis Fukuyama asks some of the hard questions.

On the one-year anniversary of the brutal, Euro-shattering murder of Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands, Prince Charles–future sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and possessed as ever of that special knack for doing the right thing at the right time–has come to the United States to lecture President Bush about America’s “confrontational” approach to Islam.

The visit comes as the United States, having freed 50 million Muslims from tyranny (with stalwart help, it must be added, from our flinty British allies) assesses the progress of is project to democratize the Middle East. It also comes fresh from last week's series of Iftaar dinners, at which official Washington now annually, and with all due ostentation, marks the end of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Muslim calendar. Including one such event at which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in an effusion of treacle startling even by Foggy Bottom's cloying standards, elevated Islam from its previous heady status of “religion of peace” to an even loftier — if rigorously unexamined — station in our public discourse: “Religion of love and peace.”

The same week, of course, also saw the Iranian mullahs' new frontman, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reiterate Khomeini's promise that Israel would be destroyed (a goal he sees “attainable” in the “very” short term). As if that were not enough, we further witnessed a suicide bombing by Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Israeli coastal city of Hadera, killing five innocents and wounding dozens — an attack staged from the West Bank, the cornerstone of the Palestinian State that is the obsessively coveted pot of gold at the end of the Bush administration's roadmap rainbow.

With “love” like this, it will be intriguing to hear what His Royal Highness supposes a less affectionate disposition might look like. In any event, the president and his foreign service would do well to look elsewhere for the lessons to be drawn from Europe. Francis Fukuyama would be an excellent source to start with.

Professor Fukuyama has a very insightful op-ed in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal. (See here, subscription required.) The administration and thinkers like Natan Sharansky prioritize conversion of the Islamic world to democracy in the conceit that it will increase our security. Yet, there's much more to it than that. Fukuyama points out, compellingly, that the threat posed by Islamism spawned inside democratic countries themselves, in Europe in particular, is at least as perilous as that coming from Muslim countries. And this is, of course, borne out — from van Gogh, to Madrid, to London.

He argues that in the Muslim world, the impulse toward radicalism is restrained since one's Islamic identity is more of a cultural phenomenon than one driven by deeply held personal belief. As Fukuyama puts it, “In a traditional Muslim country, your religious identity is not a matter of choice; you receive it, along with your social status, customs and habits, even your future marriage partner, from your social environment. In such a society there is no confusion as to who you are, since your identity is given to you and sanctioned by all of the society's institutions, from the family to the mosque to the state.”

To the contrary, when Muslims emigrate to the West, those “social supports” are gone and identity is up for grabs. Enter the European democratic welfare state. It presents the perfect storm for radicalizing the young and unmoored: an exclusionary nationalism lurking under all the cant about post-national “Europeanness”; hyper-intrusive labor regulation that causes high immigrant unemployment; and multiculturalist policies that give group rights pride of place over individual freedom, ghettoizing the immigrant population into further isolation from the surrounding society.

The result? Fukuyama opines:

It is in this context that someone like Osama bin Laden appears, offering young converts a universalistic, pure version of Islam that has been stripped of its local saints, customs and traditions. Radical Islamism tells them exactly who they are — respected members of a global Muslim umma to which they can belong despite their lives in lands of unbelief. Religion is no longer supported, as in a true Muslim society, through conformity to a host of external social customs and observances; rather it is more a question of inward belief.

And it is inward belief as defined by the most extremist, violent elements.

Fukuyama's conclusion: Democracy is desirable for its own sake, but it is not a solution — at least in the short term — to the problem of Islamic radicalism. Moreover, in the West, where democracy already reigns supreme, there is no peace without assimilation.

Easier said than done. But the doing can't start without the saying, and the self-examination it prompts. On that score, two points.

First, Fukuyama rightly contends that this assimilation must begin with an end to fractious multiculturalism. He concludes, however, that this means the societies themselves must change, if not fundamentally than at least significantly. Countries, he declares, “need to reformulate their definitions of national identity to be more accepting of people from non-Western backgrounds.”

I'm all for acceptance, but I respectfully disagree. Immigrants presumably come to a new place because it is attractive to them as is, not because they seek to reform it. More desirable would be real gate-keeping immigration policies that admitted only those of a mind to assimilate to the home culture, not the other way around. If that means people who would otherwise emigrate end up remaining in their home countries, is that such a bad thing? As Fukuyama posits, in those places — if they are Islamic countries — a social-support system exists that tends against mass radicalism (even if, as history has shown, it has not been able to prevent pockets of radicalism, and, occasionally, dominant radicalism in places like Sudan and Afghanistan under the Taliban).

Second, perhaps understandably, Fukuyama does not confront the bottom-line logic of his thesis. Why is it that Islamic culture tends less toward radicalism when Muslim identity is more of a predetermined social reality (as he contends it is in the Islamic countries), than when it is a deeply held belief system that must transcend its non-Muslim surroundings to thrive (as is the case in the West)?

We've been bombarded with a lot of this “let's not go there” insouciance since 9/11. President Bush, while smoke was still billowing from Ground Zero, insisted that the answer to Islamic radicalism was somehow to be found outside Islam — that 19 terrorists had “hijacked a great religion.” Just a week ago, during her “religion of love” encomium, Secretary Rice maintained: “We in America know the benevolence that is at the heart of Islam.”

That all sounds very nice. But let's leave aside for the moment that if such things were as routinely proclaimed by high government officials about Christianity or Judaism the ACLU would be stampeding the federal courts with lawsuits decrying Establishment Clause violations. What's the evidence that what the administration claims is true?

At roughly the same time as last week's contrasting Ramadan speeches from Rice and Ahmadinejad, the imam of Mecca's Grand Mosque, Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais, was in Dubai being honored by his fellow Muslims with the Islamic Personality of the Year Award. As Don Feder observes, it was not long ago that Al-Sudais was heard praying “that Allah would 'terminate' the Jews, who he benevolently called 'the scum of humanity, the rats of the world, prophet killers … pigs and monkeys' (the latter comes from the Koran). On other occasions Al-Sudais referred to Jews as 'evil,' a 'continuum of deceit,' 'tyrannical' and 'treacherous.'”

In the Muslim ghettoes of democratic Europe, the likes of Al-Sudais are far more influential than Locke or Burke or Montesquieu. Nonetheless, in sorting out the militants from the moderates, we've made a taboo of the obvious question: Is there something about Islam?

Andrew C. McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.