Amid all the terror and panic and xenophobic hysteria of the Paris aftermath — which seems to have set the dial on the political Way-Back Machine to about 2002, at least for now — Republicans actually have a point. Maybe it’s half a point, because when Donald Trump or Ted Cruz (or Marine Le Pen) raise the contested question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy, they don’t really understand the basic terms of the question, let alone where it leads.
I will jump ahead here and suggest that you don’t get to ask that leading question about Islam and democracy, which has been the subject of considerable scholarly debate, without asking a number of corollary questions. What do we mean by Islam, and what do we mean by democracy? Is “democracy,” as we currently understand it and experience it, actually compatible with the idea of democracy as it was handed down from antiquity and reconceived by the Enlightenment? But it does no good for people on the left who claim to stand for democracy, and for its associated values of human rights and civil liberties, to pretend that the questions about Islam and democracy do not exist or do not matter, or that they have been settled. The killings in the 11th arrondissement, and the reaction throughout the West, should be enough to tell us that isn’t so.
It gives me absolutely no pleasure to insist that on this question, as on others, the Islamist militants of ISIS and the anti-Islamic Western right have reached the same conclusion. To put it more bluntly, every major Republican presidential candidate (excepting one or two of Jeb Bush’s multiple personalities) largely subscribes to the political and philosophical worldview of ISIS, except when it comes to final eschatological questions about who ends up in Paradise.
Indeed, in both cases the idea that Islam and democracy are incompatible is more like an essential premise than a conclusion, and the kinship goes much deeper than that. Both sides begin with the same diagnosis, which is that Western civilization faces a fundamental, existential crisis, and arrive at closely allied prescriptions aimed at producing closely related outcomes. In one case, Western democracy is seen as a corrupt and decadent sham that will simply be destroyed (and perhaps, in some fantasy future, subjugated to Islamic rule). In the other, Western democracy is corrupt and decadent and so on, and it must be destroyed in order to save it.
This meeting of minds and convergence of interests is not good news for the future of Islam or the future of Western democracy or the future of the human species. Personally, I’m not interested in the left-liberal tendency to use this for partisan political purposes: There are more important things at stake here than winning the next election, and in any event this issue feels like a lose-lose for everyone. It’s definitely not good news for those who want to resist both militant Islam and right-wing bigotry, as witness the political gymnastics performed in recent days by French President François Hollande and Hillary Clinton and even Bernie Sanders.
Clinton’s post-Parisian lurch to the right is obviously a strategic maneuver designed to fend off charges that she’s a terrorist-coddling crypto-Muslim in the mold of Barack Hussein Obama. It should also serve to remind both Clinton’s fans and detractors who she really is: a classic “Cold War liberal,” progressive on domestic social issues (at least within the frame of neoliberal economic and fiscal policy) but supremely hawkish when it comes to foreign policy and national security. Whether that combination reflects genuine principle or sheer political calculation I couldn’t say, and with Hillary Clinton I’m not sure there’s a difference. In her best possible incarnation, she might be President Hubert Humphrey, albeit imprisoned by a political climate HHH could never have imagined.
This point about the ideological marriage of ISIS and the Republicans has been made in various ways by various commentators since the Paris attacks — I made it myself in the immediate aftermath, even if I “buried the lede” — but I don’t think it can be restated often enough. Strategists of the Islamic State want Western regimes to persecute and marginalize Muslim citizens, crack down on immigration and squander their financial and political capital on a military response that is unlikely to produce a clear-cut victory and highly likely to harden anti-Western attitudes in the Islamic world. A similar approach worked brilliantly for Osama bin Laden in 2001 — better than he expected, I would guess — and ISIS possesses a far more sophisticated understanding of Western politics and culture than Osama and the old-school al-Qaida leadership ever did.
ISIS has repeatedly made clear, in its own English-language publications, that it seeks to divide the world between the infidel Crusader West and the purifying force of radical Islam, and to destroy any “gray zone” of accommodation or détente that lies between those stereotypical extremes. As scholar Bernard Lewis explained in an extended discourse on this subject back in 1993 (long before he suckered himself into becoming a war cheerleader), the most important target of Islamic fundamentalism was not the West itself but “pseudo-Muslim apostates” who had abandoned the true faith and become corrupted by secular foreign ideologies like liberalism or socialism or nationalism. This also could not possibly be clearer in the case of ISIS, which has murdered many times more Muslims than Westerners and whose ideological outreach is all about providing unemployed and disaffected Muslim youth in Europe and North America (many from secular families) a renewed sense of identity and community.
Some Republicans and European right-wingers are intelligent enough to understand all this, one must assume. It’s not some breathtaking new analysis to assert that the conflict between the West and violent Islamic extremism — and the conflict within the Muslim world itself — has more to do with ideology and economic conditions than with bombing sorties and “boots on the ground.” Either the leaders of the xenophobic right do not agree that they are doing exactly what ISIS wants them to do or they don’t care, and both possibilities are equally puzzling. My conclusion is that some don’t know and others don’t care, and that none of them can help themselves. They are driven forward by larger forces they cannot resist or control — by the populist upsurge of fear and animosity that is driving the No Syrian Grandmas movement, and by their not-so-secret conviction that the Islamist militants are right about the decrepit condition of Western civilization and democracy.
For at least the last 20 years and arguably closer to the last 50, the Republican Party has bet its future on appealing to a constantly shrinking electoral quadrant of exurban whites, largely in the South and Southwest. Throughout that period, the basis of that appeal has been the idea that America and Americanism (as core Republican voters understood those things) were in critical danger and under constant attack from within, from feminism and multiculturalism and the P.C. thought police, from Adam-and-Steve wedding cakes and the “war on Christmas” and white people who drove Volvos and wore funny glasses and drank chai lattes. Drive through any rural region of the United States — in my case, the impoverished hinterlands of central New York State, barely three hours from Manhattan — and you’ll encounter those “Take Back Our Country” lawn signs. No one on any side of the question needs to ask from whom.
It’s glaringly obvious, or at least it should be, that those are exactly the same tendencies that the leaders of ISIS and Osama bin Laden and the Taliban perceive and despise in the West. Much of that derives from Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual godfather of modern Islamic extremism, who published his influential critique “The America That I Have Seen” after spending two years in various parts of the U.S. in the late 1940s. Qutb excoriated America for its “deviant chaos” and its focus on “animalistic desires, pleasures, and awful sins.” He probably never imagined the prospect of same-sex weddings, gender-neutral bathrooms or Kardashian-centric reality TV, but would have perceived such outrageous developments as logical results of America’s fundamental depravity.
Some of Qutb’s complaints about materialism, consumerism and economic inequality, in fairness, are more redolent of left-wing moralizing, and those elements too can be found in contemporary Islamist rhetoric. But he was especially obsessed with the widespread secularism of American life, with the growing cultural influence of black people (whom he described as “bestial” and “noisy”) and with the sexual and intellectual freedom of women. Remember, this was 1949! He sounds like a horndog Baptist preacher out of some overcooked satirical novel when he inveighs against the “seductive capacity” of the American female, found in her “expressive eyes, and thirsty lips … in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs.” Whatever research Qutb may have undertaken on that subject during his time in Colorado and California was for the benefit of Islam, to be sure.
My point is not merely that puritanism of all stripes has common roots and common goals, and always calls for a return to some bygone era of virtue that almost certainly never existed. That’s a point worth making, but here’s the real secret sauce that binds the insane doctrines of ISIS to the Republican Party madhouse of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz: They both perceive all this decadence and moral relativism and loss of faith as the consequence of 200-odd years of democratic malpractice. One side has the decency to say openly that the legacy of 1776 and 1789 was complete bullshit from the get-go, nothing more than a high-minded pretext for imperial conquest and endless self-indulgence. The other side — and I think you know the one I mean — must pretend that democracy is or was a good idea, at least until it was distorted by Communist mind control or the Black Panthers or the 14th Amendment, while doing everything possible to undermine it.
I don’t suspect I need to lay out here all the ways that the American right, faced with an evident demographic disadvantage, has sought to disenfranchise its opponents, poison the political and legislative process and transfer power to the super-rich. As I and others have repeatedly observed, the great victory of the Koch brothers and the Republican brain trust in the 2014 midterm election lay not just in the GOP’s huge congressional majority but in the shocking 36.6 percent turnout, the lowest in any national election since World War II. The American right cannot return to a system where only property-owning white men are allowed to vote, at least not without visibly ripping up the Constitution. But it has gone a long way toward creating an environment that discourages and disheartens everyone else, and where the Angry White Male vote is coddled and inflamed and privileged in numerous ways.
As strange as this may sound, I do not doubt the faith that lies behind the right-wing distaste for democracy, or at least no more than I doubt the conflicted zealotry that lies behind militant Islam. Both sides correctly observe that the various strains of post-Jeffersonian democracy in the Western world have been plagued with problems from the beginning, and now face a dire crisis. Both the Western right and fundamentalist Islam yearn to pull their societies back toward a purer distillation of faith and a collective sense of purpose, and what could serve that purpose better than an apocalyptic "clash of civilizations"? They see the salvation of their respective societies in the rejection of the flabby ideal of democracy, explicitly or otherwise, and its replacement with a more virile, more godly and more effective system.
Is Islam compatible with democracy? Scholars have batted that one around for decades without arriving at a clear yes-or-no answer. Roughly 40 percent of the world's Muslims live in nominal democracies now, for whatever that's worth, and the popular appetite for democracy demonstrated by the Arab Spring was unmistakable, if also unfulfillable. But it strikes me as the wrong question. We might as well ask whether capitalism is compatible with democracy, or whether human nature is. As Justice Louis Brandeis may have said (like so many famous quotations, this one is tough to pin down), we can have democracy or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both. By that standard we have never had democracy, and quite likely never will.