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Liberalism Is Just Not a Revolutionary Ideology: The 21st-Century Crossroad of Islamism and Enlightenment - Part 1

By Saladdin Ahmed

December 10, 2019

Despite a decade of resistance since the Iranian Green Revolution in 2009, another Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has yet to be born. In its way lie Sunni and Shia Islamist blocs, which have been remarkably successful in preventing entire societies from stepping forward. In countries where they have assumed state power, Islamist forces have been aggressive and totalitarian, while elsewhere they have hijacked popular liberal movements of regime change in recent years. Ultimately, if the anti-Islamist resistance does not soon bring down the main sponsors of the Sunni and Shia blocs—the Turkish and Iranian regimes, respectively—the coming era will be no less bloody than the period from 1919 to 1945.

In my view, the avalanche that will topple the regime in Iran is gaining speed, but as for the Sunni bloc, I am less optimistic. The Kurds are the last obstacle to Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman caliphate, and it seems they are being left to face their heroic yet tragic fate alone. If the Islamist momentum of militarization and mobilization is allowed to continue building, it will eventually shatter the prospects for international peace. Perhaps only then, looking back on these days, will liberal democracies recognize their own culpability for failing to support anti-Islamist struggles in the region.

With the Marxian left long dead in the MENA region, Islamist forces were the most prepared to fill the vacuum left by the decline of totalitarian regimes in the wake of the Arab Spring. After assuming power, Islamists soon began a war against all that is progressive and has killed people indiscriminately, with a special focus on marginalized populations such as Yezidis, Kurds, and women. In short, the societal and political liberation fought for throughout the region was quickly hijacked and reversed by Islamists. The present is the moment of suspension caught between two opposing forces: a future-driven force that lacks an alternative formula beyond liberalism and a reactionary force that seeks divine glory through the complete negation of the individual human being as a right holder and reason as her emancipatory enterprise.

Societies across the MENA region are at a crossroad. On the one hand, if Islamism prevails, the individual as a free agent and an end in herself will be lost once more, turning the twenty-first century into an extension of the dark ages, only with a capitalist framework. The alternative is for the MENA region to finally and unapologetically step into an age of enlightenment, thereby freeing the legacy of the Enlightenment from its chauvinistic and racist Eurocentrism. While Europe remains in a self-imposed cage out of fear of merging with non-white immigrant communities, compromised by repeated deals with Erdogan to guard its gates, the progressives of the MENA region face a decisive battle over the fate of what started in eighteenth-century Europe but never reached a safe shore.

It is important to reiterate that Islamism has two heads, two centres of imperialism, and these create two walls separating the present from a more dignifying future for humanity as such. The first is Sunni Islamism with Ankara as its world capital, and the second is Shia Islamism with Tehran serving as its world capital. At the moment, the fall of the current regime in Tehran seems increasingly imminent, and this would deliver a decisive blow to Shia Islamism from Baghdad to Lebanon. For it is not only Iranians but also Iraqis, Yemenis, Syrians, and Lebanese who are doomed to suffer from sectarian divisions and violence as long as Tehran remains unfree.

However, even if the Islamic Republic of Iran does fall, the Sunni Islamist bloc will remain virtually unscathed, and it will continue to prevent any step forward in the MENA region. The most pressing threat is not organizations like al-Qaida or ISIS but rather Erdogan’s Turkey, which functions as the Sunni imperialist center of power, strategy, and conspiracy. For the last several years, Erdogan’s imperialist enterprise has only seemed to gain ground, especially given the continual compromises of the United States and the EU to his advantage. That said, regimes that have endured decades of dissent in the MENA region could start to collapse within the span of a few days, when their fall is least expected. This is a characteristic shared by all regimes that embrace the twentieth-century model of totalitarianism, which is simply not quake-resistant. Such regimes can be toppled abruptly precisely because of their rigidity and reliance on sheer terror, unlike new forms of totalitarianism, which are much more entrenched, as I theorized in my latest book.

A twentieth-century-style totalitarian regime has an iron façade precisely to hide a fatally hollowed structure. Because terror is the regime’s only defensive strategy, it resists frequent waves of dissent by resorting to extensive force. Its terrorism is the immediate product of the abnormal fear that always dominates the minds of the ruling group. Totalitarian regimes are run by bullies whose psychopathic hatred of the marginalized is an impulsive reaction against an unconscious weak self-image. Essentially, a totalitarian political regime is the institutional embodiment of an assembly of individuals who are pathologically insecure. The state’s obsession with security and endless policing is the immediate outcome.

In such a model, the chasm between people and the totalitarian regime continually expands, rendering the state structure ever hollower. After a certain point, the hollow iron tower of totalitarianism will crumble in the face of a simultaneous push by a sufficient number of those imprisoned inside. It is often a coincidence as opposed to a pre-planned moment of dissent that triggers such a protest, driving enough people out into the public space to destroy the foundations of an entire regime. Indeed, this was the case for the Shah regime in Iran and most of the totalitarian regimes that have since fallen in the MENA region.

In 2009, the Green Revolution was brutally suppressed by the Khamenei regime, but Iranians communicated a significant twofold message: the regime was unpopular across regions and classes, and it was not indestructible. Those months of uprisings made clear the antagonistic relationship between the regime and the civil society as well as the fundamentally distinct political objectives of each side. While the police camp remained steadfastly committed to the elites of the Islamic Republic, the society at large grew increasingly convinced that the regime was unreformable. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before popular dissent would resurface across the country, including in Persian-majority regions.

Indeed, just three days after the government’s November 15 announcement that it would increase fuel prices, people took to the streets in more than 100 cities across Iran as part of what is arguably the fastest-growing protest against the regime thus far. Like the ongoing protests in Chile, it is much more than fuel prices at stake in Iran; this is a movement for regime change. The Iranian regime was the main beneficiary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, but since early October 2019, Iraqis are also rising up against the Iranian regime’s proxy government in Baghdad. At the same time, Lebanon is witnessing an unprecedented popular movement to end sectarianism and corruption, and Iran’s main ally, Hezbollah, has found itself in its weakest position in at least two decades. In the span of two months, the empire of Shia Islamism has started showing signs of irreversible damage. Very few regimes are so unpopular both internally and internationally as the ruling Islamist regime in Iran, and we may soon see an end date for the Islamic Republic of Iran in our world encyclopaedias.

The collapse of Sunni Islamism seems much less likely at this point. In 2011, a series of towers and castles of totalitarian regimes began to crumble, exposing the futility of the nationalist project that had shaped most of the post-colonial era in Arab-majority countries. The Arab Spring also demonstrated the absence of an alternative popular force capable of reorganizing states in accordance with a model of governance that could at least guarantee the dignity of citizens. Such a model is the most fundamental liberal goal, but alas, liberalism is just not a revolutionary ideology. For despite its advancement of a central conception of (negative) freedom, liberalism, as I will explain in part 2, lacks a revolutionary substance. Therefore, while liberals might make excellent reformists, they are generally helpless revolutionaries.

Saladdin Ahmed is the author of Totalitarian Space and the Destruction of Aura (SUNY Press, 2019). He is currently a visiting assistant professor of political theory at Union College.

Original Headline: The 21st-Century Crossroad of Islamism and Enlightenment, Part 1: The Historical Crossroad of an Ideological Crisis

Source: Telos Press