The end of history and the long march of secularisation

Olivier Roy
15 May 2006

Francis Fukuyama makes one of the best cases against the concept of a "clash of civilisations". He does so by stressing the need to draw a distinction between the western historical origins of modern secular democracy and the way principles and ideas have become universal. To establish democracy does not suppose that a society should go through the same historical and cultural process that the west has undergone. The issue is then how these universal principles may reconnect with other cultures.

One precondition is a certain degree of loss or weakening of traditional culture: a process that is taking place in front of our very eyes. The clash of civilisations thesis presupposes that cultures are to a large extent based on religions and that religions are embedded into specific cultures: hence the conclusion that religion influences political cultures. But what we see nowadays is a disconnection between two realities: cultural traditions, and the reformulation of religious values and norms beyond any specific cultures. In fact the reformulation of religious values opens the possibility of adapting to democratic values while retaining one's identity. A perfect example is Turkey, in which a party like the AK (Justice & Development Party), which was at its origin an Islamist party, became a tool for greater democratisation of the Turkish political system after decades of authoritarian secularism.

Olivier Roy is a professor at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris (Ehess).

This article is part of an openDemocracy symposium on Francis Fukuyama's afterword in the second paperback edition of The End of History and the Last Man
(Simon & Schuster, 2006)

For an overview of the debate click here

Also published:

Francis Fukuyama, "After the 'end of history'"
(2 May 2006)

Danny Postel, "The 'end of history' revisited: Francis Fukuyama and his critics"
(2 May 2006)

Saskia Sassen, "A state of decay" (3 May 2006)

Talal Asad, "A single history?" (May 2006)

Anthony Pagden, "The end of history, or history all over again?"
(May 2006)

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, "Politico-religious cults and the 'end of history'" (10 May 2006)

David Scott, "Fukuyama's crossroads: the poetics of location" (12 May 2006)

A matter of legitimacy

The clash of civilisations complaint is the swansong of traditional cultures confronted with the triumph of globalisation. But the adoption of democracy and liberalism does not suppose a sheer borrowing of new patterns: it has to go through a complex process of reappropriation to become both legitimate and workable. Identity has little to do with the permanence of traditional patterns and more with reappropriation and empowerment.

The problem with Islam is that this disconnection between religion and traditional culture works as much in favour of some sort of fundamentalism as it does of a liberal view of religion, not to speak of secularist values. This is on full display in the rather general success of Islamist parties every time there is a policy of democratisation in a Muslim country. Conversely a basic idea about democratisation is that it is the result of a long process of secularisation.

The west has thus supported and is still supporting authoritarian secular regimes in the Muslim world, from Atatürk to Tunisia's president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali – hoping to create first a secularised society, and then encouraging the regimes to reform themselves. The paradox is that this policy led to associate secularism with dictatorship and Islamism with … democracy, while no authoritarian regime seems to willingly embrace true reform. The Iraq campaign shows how silly it is to attempt to build democracy from scratch and from the outside.

To root democracy in Muslim countries one has to take into account the issue of political legitimacy. And nowadays, for good or bad reasons, legitimacy goes along with nationalism and Islam. Fukuyama is right to underline that democratisation can be implemented, at least first, only at a nation-state level. It is why one should take into account existing nationalisms (Palestinian for instance). Imposing democracy against nationalism will not work, which is why refusing to engage with Hamas does not make sense.

A question of Islam

What, then, about Islam? From Afghanistan to Iraq, the call to incorporate sharia into the constitution is a way to placate the Islamists and the traditionalist Muslims, and to put forward a "national" identity against a rapid and deep-seated westernisation. This leads to the rise of a very conservative Islam centred this time on law and moral values, not on revolution, jihad or even the concept of an Islamic state. But this conservative wave should not hide the changes affecting practicing Muslims. It has less to do with a reformation in the Protestant sense (although one could debate whether Luther was a liberal democrat) than with a change in religiosity.

The individualisation of religious practices, the reformulation of religion outside the bonds of traditional cultures (Salafism targets first "traditional Islams"), the experience of living as a minority (for second-generation Muslims in the west), adopting democracy as a way to resist dictatorships – all of this contributes to a slow but genuine internalisation of liberal and democratic values, while at the same time maintaining a strong religious identity.

Democracy cannot be enforced from outside, but we are witnessing a slow process of recasting Islamism in the framework of democracy. The former Islamist movements in the middle east became truly Islamo-nationalist, adopting the framework of the nation-state (as Hamas is doing); now, because they are confronted with the necessity to attract voters outside their ideological constituency and (once elected) to deliver the goods, they are more and more adopting democracy. It may begin as purely tactical (or simply pragmatic), but over time political practices are internalised and change the mentality of the militants, who by the way are more and more aware of the failure of Islamist ideologies.

Once again, Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey is probably the best example of the achievement of bringing religion and democracy together. The same is true in the economic sphere: in Turkey, for instance, the move of former Islamists toward democracy also carries with it the adoption by religious entrepreneurs of a work ethic very close to the Protestant ethic of capitalism.

An issue of citizenship

Encouraging the shift from a communal, ethnic or religious identity to citizenship means first of all the opening of the political field, in the framework of the nation-state. This is true for the middle east, but also for Muslims in the west. Neither forced secularism nor multiculturalism is the answer. Both suppose that the link between ethnic culture and religion is permanent: for secularist France, integration means giving away or keeping private any religious belonging, while multiculturalism defines Islam not as a mere religion but as a different culture, while precisely this concept of "culture" is fading away among the second generation in favour of a purely religious identity.

In fact most of the Muslims in the west want to be recognised as Muslims and citizens, in the framework of the existing European nation-states, and not necessarily as some sort of an ethno-cultural minority. But they are regularly confronted with the prejudice that religion and culture are the same thing, and thus that they will remain different, and even "foreigners". If real citizenship is denied to European Muslims, the clash of civilisations may thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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