Thursday, December 11, 2014

John M. Owen IV's "Confronting Political Islam"

John Owen is the Ambassador Henry J. and Mrs. Marion R. Taylor Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Clash of Ideas in World Politics and Liberal Peace, Liberal War.

Owen applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Confronting Political Islam: Six Lessons from the West's Past, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Following Thomas Jefferson, Americans believe that the truths in the Declaration of Independence are self-evident. True they are, but if their truth were self-evident then U.S. counterterrorism and counterinsurgency would not need to win the “hearts and minds” of millions of people. Indeed, across history countless thinkers have thought that all persons are not equal. The truly self-evident truth is that American values are contested around the world. That means that to many around the world the United States is an ideological country, not a rational one.
So begins page 99 of my book Confronting Political Islam. I am arguing that the United States is, in an important sense, an ideological country.

Why a passage about the early United States and Europe in a book about Islamism – an ideology that insists that Islamic law be the law of the land? Because there is an important analogy. Often when people in the Western world consider an Islamist state such as Iran, they disagree sharply over whether that state is rational or ideological. The presumption is that a state cannot be both. That presumption is wrong. In fact, a state can have ideological goals yet employ rational (that is, efficient) means toward those goals. To outsiders, Iran’s stubborn persistence in its nuclear program may look irrational, because it has brought on international sanctions and the threat of a U.S. or Israeli nuclear strike. But Iran’s rationality becomes clear once we recognize that one of its stated goals is to reduce American influence in the Middle East. And that goal is a product of the Iranian regime’s ideology.

Ironically, to Europe’s monarchies the young United States looked like Iran does today. America pursued policies that some Europeans thought irrational. But American leaders had distinctive goals for their country and for the international system, goals shaped by their liberal-republican ideology and pursued rationally. Page 99 continues:
Indeed, Jefferson himself knew well that the young United States held a revolutionary set of ideas about how both domestic and international life ought to be ordered. America was a revisionist power. In the late eighteenth century the Western international system, based in Europe, was built upon the legitimacy of thrones. The only legitimate states were monarchical states. For more than a century, the crowned heads of Europe had been increasing their power by subduing the nobles who had been so powerful in the Middle Ages. Europe had republics dominated by nobles—Venice, the Netherlands, and Switzerland were the outstanding examples—but the great military powers were all monarchies, modeled on the successes of France’s Louis XIV. Around this system had been built an ideology of royal sovereignty, seen in the writings of England’s James I and of the Frenchmen Jean Bodin and Bishop Bossuet.

As important, these monarchies sought empires—pieces of extra territory to rule and monopolize economically. Some European empire building in the eighteenth century took place in Europe itself, but most of it was in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. European monarchs commissioned private entrepreneurs and adventurers to claim new land for the purposes of economic exploitation. Under the system known as mercantilism, an imperial state (or metropole) would send colonists to subdue and govern a territory; the territory would export raw materials to the metropole; and the metropole would export manufactures back to the colony. Each imperial power claimed a monopoly on trade with its colonies, and so competition for territory could be fierce.

Mercantilism came under increasing criticism in Western Europe in the eighteenth century. In France the Physiocrats argued that agriculture, not the acquisition of precious metals or the development of manufacturing, was the engine of wealth. In Britain Adam Smith argued that political barriers to economic exchange actually impoverished nations; better to let people conduct commerce freely, without monopoly privileges within or among nations.
Lesson 4, “A State May Be Rational and Ideological at the Same Time,” is just one of the book’s six lessons from the West’s past on how to deal with political Islam. There are many books on Islamism, many of them very good. My book takes a fresh approach to the subject by considering Islamism and its struggle against secularism not in isolation but as an example of a general recurring phenomenon in world history: ideological contests that cut across entire regions for many decades. Islamism’s 86-year-old struggle against secularism is much like struggles between Catholicism and Protestantism in Europe 400 years ago; republicanism and monarchism 200 years ago; and communism, fascism, and democracy 70 years ago. We have much to learn from those struggles about the vexing and confusing dynamics of the Muslim world today.
Learn more about the book and author at John M. Owen IV's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Clash of Ideas in World Politics.

--Marshal Zeringue