From the Footnotes: Ignorance of Islam and of the Decentralization of Power

There are widespread calls for an Islamic reformation such as Christianity experienced in the sixteenth century, but the Reformation cleaved Christianity into two major traditions and many splintered sects; each grew independently of the others, eroding any hope of a Christian center that could rein in extremes. After its early division into Sunni and Shi’a, Islam has come to suffer enough from this segmentation without a modern reformation. Indeed, Islam is a democratic religion, so thoroughly decentralized that even muftis are elected. Many Muslims are interested not in further schisms but rather in reconciliation among the competing doctrines and their extremist messengers, ultimately reducing the violence carried out against each other and other civilizations. As Gilles Kepel argues, though the rise of militant Islamism has been spectacular, its hyperviolence has proved to be a liability rather than an asset. (243)

This is from Parag Khanna’s 2008 book The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. This footnote is in most respects a microcosm of the book as a whole: it’s on the cusp of providing theoretical insight into how the world works but just can’t seem to shake a certain type of dogma associated with the technocratic Left (I think he has done a better job of shaking this dogma post-2008).

This footnote is also in most respects why I’ll never be a Leftist again, even as a sleek, trade-friendly technocrat.

This footnote says to me that Khanna is arguing for a hands-off approach to Islam on the part of the West. Khanna is saying that Islam does not need a Christianity-style reformation. So far, so good. Khanna and I are in agreement. Then he goes off his rocker, though, by arguing that Christianity (and by implication European society) became a net loser because there was no Christian center to temper extremists.

What?

Correct me if I am wrong, but doesn’t Christian Europe have higher standards of living/tolerance/pluralist values today than anywhere else in the Old World? And isn’t Christian Europe the one place in the Old World where it is awfully hard to find Christian religious extremists? Wouldn’t you have a better argument if you stated that is was the lack of a Christian center which has been responsible for the dramatic increase in standards of living/tolerance/pluralist values in the West?

Maybe Khanna is thinking of medieval Europe, with its devastating series of religiously-inspired wars, but somehow I don’t think this is the case.

The Muslim world is decentralized culturally (like Europe) and is trying to decentralize politically (again, like Europe). The political decentralization is being hastened by trade liberalization and global economic integration. This same decentralization is being resisted by the international order (including, especially, Russia and China) due to nefarious but understandable interests of state but also to the severe lack of understanding that Western intellectuals like Khanna have of social organization. A center of cultural or political or economic power does not guarantee a waning of extremes. In fact, in some cases (in most?) such a center of power actually contributes to extremes.

Khanna was so blinded (and, again, I think he’s changed his tune post-2008) by technocratic Left-wing theory that he could not see what he was arguing: that a decentralized Christianity gave rise to Europe as we know it, therefore the West should step back so that the Muslim religion can build a monolithic consensus in order to combat “extremes.” Am I mischaracterizing Khanna’s footnote? Am I knocking down a straw man?

Khanna’s latest stuff has been much better than what I found in his 2008 book. He still doesn’t go far enough, though. He needs to undertake Brandon-style libertarianism in order to really be a bad ass: let the process of decentralization happen, but (but) recognize new states where it is smart and safe to do so (Kurdistan? The Islamic State? Baluchistan?) and then integrate them into the imperfect but important international order that the West has slowly been building for the last hundred years or so.

Khanna’s incoherence on geopolitical matters is not limited to interesting footnotes. Check out what he wrote in the introduction (again, this is from 2008):

Many believe that the emerging world order is polycentric: China will remain primarily a regional power, Japan will assert itself more nationalistically, the EU will lack influence beyond its immediate region, India will rise to rival China, Russia will resurge, and an Islamic Caliphate will congeal as a geopolitical force. (xviii)

This is basically what has happened so far, and it largely falls in line of where I would bet my money (but not place my dreams) on future events (the Muslim world excepted; see above). Khanna has none of it though:

All these views ignore a much deeper reality: The United States, the European Union, and China already possess most of the total power in the world. (xviii)

I think this argument, if anything, reveals Khanna’s (and, by implication, the technocratic Left’s) authoritarian impulses and desires. The United States is the world’s sole hegemon, and it will be for a long, long time. The EU is a basketcase and China’s GDP (PPP) per capita stands at Intl$ 11,907 in 2013, just below the Dominican Republic, Serbia, the world average, and Iraq. Khanna’s inclusion of the EU – with the social democratic values that technocratic Leftists mistakenly believe Europe harbors – and China – an ode to both the condescending identity politics of the same technocratic Left and its fixation with centrally-planned but privately-run enterprises (“corporatism”) – in the troika of world powers illustrates nicely the weaknesses of the Left.

Khanna’s dogma gets him in more trouble (still on the same introductory page):

Russia, Japan, and India cannot assert themselves globally, militarily or otherwise […] In fact, they are being gradually outmaneuvered by the United States, the EU, and China in their own regions. (xviii)

Don’t cry for Khanna. Last time I checked, he was on the board of several prominent think tanks.

Khanna’s best chapter is on the Middle East (it starts with a useful map on p. 168 and ends on p. 253). His treatment of post-Soviet Europe is laughable (“Ukraine: From Border to Bridge”) and his treatment of China (“Asia”) is overly laudable. India gets just three dismissive pages.

Would I recommend reading it?

Yeah, sure. I like the concept of “second world” that Khanna tries (but fails) to convey. I like the way he thinks and his post-2008 work is especially good. There are a lot of facts that aren’t really facts in the book though, and he applies those facts to theories that I think are weak at explaining how the world works. Then again, when has reading a book ever hurt you?

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6 thoughts on “From the Footnotes: Ignorance of Islam and of the Decentralization of Power

  1. I should probably read Khanna before commenting, but … I think it safe to say that, at a certain period, almost all Christians were extremists – very “death to the heretics!” fashion, going to war over obscure questions of religious dogma. A few, seeing this, chose the opposite course. Hence the conscious decision by Thomas Jefferson and others to promote genuine religious freedom; to fight religious battles using their Big Person Words instead of their angry weapons of war and politics.

    I don’t know enough about Islam to say whether they, too, will tire of weapons, and switch to words. I do not know enough to say why not. The folks whom I meet in many forums, however, seem to be more than ready to switch to the tools of suasion.

    • All good points, Papa L.

      I think the non-pornographic internet attracts a certain type of person from non-Western cultures, a rare type of person. I hope that more Muslims – and other religious extremists, like Buddhists in Myanmar – are ready to switch to suasion, but I suspect that the internet is giving us a skewed sample of (rich, educated, well-traveled) non-Western Muslims.

      Your optimism is something I share, of course.

    • Thanks Dr A.

      I note here that Khanna is not on the board of any of the three think tanks I trust (Cato, Brookings, and Hoover), although he did at one point have a short stint at Brookings.

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