Enlightenment versus Reactionary Islamism

The Library of Alexandria

At this crucial stage in history, when humanity faces another upsurge of reactionary Islamism in the form of the Islamic State (IS) and kindred militant groups, it would seem proper to reconsider the traditional Western interventionist approach.

Taking for granted that the overall aim of Western engagement in regions beleagured by reactionary Islamists is the proliferation of Enlightenment and civilization, peace and democracy, one may well pose the critical question whether traditional military intervention is conducive to these aims. There are several signs that the upsurge and spreading of reactionary Islamism can be traced back to Western intervention during the post WW2 era, and that further intervention of the conventional military kind will only exacerbate the crises and hamper the progress of Enlightenment in the actual regions.

Since antiquity, foreign military intervention has repeatedly proven counterproductive in relation to civilizatory campaigns, resulting instead in the strengthening of reactionary forces; in fact, the downfall of the ancient Roman Empire is very much a history of failed military intervention in distant areas, draining its own resources and provoking fervent resistance among the “barbarians,” who became entrenched in their traditional beliefs and alienated from Rome’s civilizatory impulses.

There are two main reasons for this entrenchment of and popular support for reactionary ideologies, in ancient as well as moder times: Firstly, as the ancient saying went, “Where Reason ends, violence begins,” implicating—in the case of reactionary Islamism, that by reducing the battlefield to one of military contest alone, the reactionary Islamists get to “play the game” with their sole asset; irrational violence. Secondly, this irrational violence—by opposing a foreign (Western) “aggressor”—is allowed to be “rationalized” by the reactionary Islamists through their reference to “defending their own territories,” which seems to enable them to recruit combatants ad infinitum. In this stalemate situation, they are able to draw on a long legacy of resistance, going all the way back to the Crusades era.

Like ancient Athens, confronting militarist Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, the modern Western world will have to rely on more than military capacity alone in confronting its opponent in the Islamic world. The Athenians failed in their struggle, to a large extent because they were drawn into the Spartans’ militarist game, and were unable to draw on their civilizatory strengths—like they did in the heyday of the Delian League. To defeat reactionary ideologies in the modern world, Western civilization must avoid the malaise of the ancient Athenians, and enable itself to draw on its rich civilizatory legacy and reach a fruitful equilibrium between the means and ends pursued in today's struggles; armed intervention will not carry the day.

Obviously, secular and democratically oriented groups in regions threatened by reactionary Islamists will not be able to win the struggle by their ideals alone; they need weapons for self-defence. And that is excactly the point here: the progressive elements in these regions will have to accomplish the direly needed Enlightenment in the respective regions themselves. The best thing that Western powers could do is to supply these elements (for example the Kurds) with arms, and focus their overall energy on various civilizatory projects—such as building libraries and founding scientific institutions in strategic locations, and defend these in co-operation with the progressive regional elements against reactionary Islamists. Thus, the delineation of the fight will become clear in the form of civilization against barbarism, rather than “we who belong here, against a foreign agressor,” and vice versa.

After all, democracy has never materialized in any other way than by people fighting for it by themselves.