|The west has won
Radical Islam can't beat democracy and capitalism. We're still at the end of history
Thursday October 11, 2001
A stream of commentators have been asserting that the tragedy of September 11 proves that I was utterly wrong to have said more than a decade ago that we had reached the end of history. It is, on the face of it, insulting to the memory of those who died to declare that this unprecedented attack did not rise to the level of a historical event. But the way in which I used the word history was different: it referred to the progress over the centuries toward modernity, characterised by institutions like democracy and capitalism.
My observation, made in 1989 on the eve of the collapse of communism, was that this evolutionary process did seem to be bringing ever larger parts of the world toward modernity. And if we looked beyond liberal democracy and markets, there was nothing else towards which we could expect to evolve; hence the end of history. While there were retrograde areas that resisted that process, it was hard to find a viable alternative civilisation that people actually wanted to live in after the discrediting of socialism, monarchy, fascism and other types of authoritarianism.
This view has been challenged by many people, and perhaps most articulately by Samuel Huntington. He argued that rather than progressing toward a single global system, the world remained mired in a "clash of civilisations" in which six or seven major cultural groups would co-exist without converging and constitute the new fracture lines of global conflict. Since the successful attack on the centre of global capitalism was evidently perpetrated by Islamic extremists unhappy with the very existence of western civilisation, observers have been handicapping the Huntington "clash" view over my own "end of history" hypothesis.
I believe that in the end I remain right: modernity is a very powerful freight train that will not be derailed by recent events, however painful. Democracy and free markets will continue to expand as the dominant organising principles for much of the world. But it is worthwhile thinking about what the true scope of the present challenge is.
Modernity has a cultural basis. Liberal democracy and free markets do not work everywhere. They work best in societies with certain values whose origins may not be entirely rational. It is not an accident that modern liberal democracy emerged first in the Christian west, since the universalism of democratic rights can be seen as a secular form of Christian universalism.
The central question raised by Huntington is whether institutions of modernity will work only in the west, or whether there is something broader in their appeal that will allow them to make headway elsewhere. I believe there is. The proof lies in the progress that democracy and free markets have made in regions such as east Asia, Latin America, orthodox Europe, south Asia and even Africa. Proof lies also in the millions of developing world immigrants who vote with their feet every year to live in western societies. The flow of people moving in the opposite direction, and the number who want to blow up what they can of the west, is by contrast negligible.
But there does seem to be something about Islam, or at least the fundamentalist versions of Islam that have been dominant in recent years, that makes Muslim societies particularly resistant to modernity. Of all contemporary cultural systems, the Islamic world has the fewest democracies (Turkey alone qualifies), and contains no countries that have made the transition to developed nation status in the manner of South Korea or Singapore.
There are plenty of non-western people who prefer the economic part of modernity and hope to have it without having to accept democracy as well. There are others who like both the economic and political versions of modernity, but just can't figure out how to make it happen. For them, transition to western-style modernity may be long and painful. But there are no insuperable cultural barriers to prevent them from getting there, and they constitute about four-fifths of the world's people.
Islam, by contrast, is the only cultural system that seems regularly to produce people like Osama bin Laden or the Taliban who reject modernity lock, stock and barrel. This raises the question of how representative such people are of the larger Muslim community, and whether this rejection is somehow inherent in Islam. For if the rejectionists are more than a lunatic fringe, then Huntington is right that we are in for a protracted conflict made dangerous by virtue of their technological empowerment.
The answer that politicians east and west have been putting out since September 11 is that those sympathetic with the terrorists are a "tiny minority" of Muslims, and that the vast majority are appalled by what happened. It is important to say this to prevent all Muslims from becoming targets of hatred. The problem is that hatred of America and what it stands for are clearly much more widespread.
Certainly the group of people willing to go on suicide missions against the US is tiny. But sympathy may be manifest in nothing more than initial feelings of schadenfreude at the sight of the collapsing towers, a sense of satisfaction that the US was getting what it deserved, to be followed by pro forma expressions of disapproval. By this standard, sympathy for the terrorists is characteristic of much more than a "tiny minority"of Muslims, extending from the middle classes in countries like Egypt to immigrants in the west.
This broader dislike and hatred would seem to represent something much deeper than mere opposition to American policies like support for Israel or the Iraq embargo, encompassing a hatred of the underlying society. After all, many people around the world, including many Americans, disagree with US policies, but this does not send them into paroxysms of anger and violence. Nor is it necessarily a matter of ignorance about the quality of life in the west. The suicide hijacker Mohamed Atta was a well-educated man from a well-to-do Egyptian family who lived and studied in the US for years. Perhaps the hatred is born out of a resentment of western success and Muslim failure.
But rather than psychologise the Muslim world, it makes more sense to ask whether radical Islam constitutes a serious alternative to western liberal democracy. (Radical Islam has virtually no appeal in the contemporary world apart from those who are culturally Islamic to begin with.) For Muslims themselves, political Islam has proved much more appealing in the abstract than in reality. After 23 years of rule by fundamentalist clerics, most Iranians, especially the young, would like to live in a far more liberal society. Afghans who have experienced Taliban rule feel much the same. Anti-American hatred does not translate into a viable political program for Muslim societies to follow.
We remain at the end of history because there is only one system that will continue to dominate world politics, that of the liberal-democratic west. This does not imply a world free from conflict, nor the disappearance of culture. But the struggle we face is not the clash of several distinct and equal cultures fighting amongst one another like the great powers of 19th-century Europe. The clash consists of a series of rearguard actions from societies whose traditional existence is indeed threatened by modernisation. The strength of the backlash reflects the severity of this threat. But time is on the side of modernity, and I see no lack of US will to prevail.
• Reprinted with permission of the Wall Street Journal, 2001. Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
• Francis Fukuyama is professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and author of The End of History and the Last Man
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October 10: Ian Traynor with the terrified Afghans fleeing Kabul (2mins 31)
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