Adam Garfinkle At The American Interest: ‘Testing The ”War Of Ideas”

Full piece here.

Likely worth your time.  A core argument:

‘So there is some Islamist ideology, in the sense of politically relevant innovations from tradition, but most of what drives Islamic State leaders is a rarified form of theology, or, if we prefer Mark Lilla’s term in The Stillborn God (2007), political theology. And here we come to the difference between theology and ideology.

Theology is a recursive, non-falsifiable system of ideas about abstract matters. Ideology, on the other hand, as abstract as it can and often does get, is at length testable against the flow of historical reality. Take the trajectory of Communism as a case in point. Its arc of rise and fall traverses about a century, but fall it certainly did, because all of the avowed test cases of the ideology put into practice failed by their own lights.’

Are most Muslims arguing theology while a vast majority in the West are arguing within Enlightenment political philosophies and traditions?

These are gross generalizations, and I’m far from expert (even competent in some areas), but here are a few ideas.  Feel free to highlight my ignorance:

  • It seems pretty accurate to say that Islamic entities and nation-states have quite fundamentally different organizing principles than the United States, and are much less focused on the freedom and autonomy of the individual:  Life and local traditions are more family and kin-based, tribal and ethnic/linguistic population-based, then Islamic sect-based, then more broadly united under Islam.


  • Islam hasn’t undergone a Reformation nor Enlightenment, really, and it’s unclear what such changes would/could look like.  Many ideas in this part of the world have been around a longer time. Westerners who insist on ideology and ‘-isms’ in explaining Islamic radicalism miss the theological nature of how many/most Muslims often see the world:  Through binding personal commitments to a transcendent God (submission of will in faith), through family and broader social obligations via that duty to God (mosque, social institutions, branches of Islam and imams, praying up to five times a day etc), and through the lens of often family/tribal connections.  Such a model can produce political stability, but mainly through Caliphates and empires quite different than governments found West of Istanbul.  It can achieve new lands through conquest, and has recently produced many autocratic rulers who rise up through the ranks of the military, without the personal nor institutional habits that exercise freedom of political associations, speech, and non-religious leadership.  Islam really hasn’t formulated the existence of such civilizations.


  • The fact that the West, and ‘modernity,’ have advanced and mightily affected the rest of the world, including Islamic civilizations, is salient:  Through technology, warfare, the imperial project, education, the sciences, business, the businesses of oil and trade, government etc. the West has spread.  Also through ideas and ideologies, like socialism/Communism. It can be as simple as music videos and an Iphone, or perhaps a new road, or a Muslim guy getting a job in the West, or an oil worker getting a job in Saudi Arabia, or as complex as the Westphalian treaty, and entirely redrawn national boundaries.

Like I said, feel free to respond.  I’m making my way here.

As previously posted:


Good article here

It’s likely you won’t agree with all of Samuel Huntington’s ideas, but he maintained a deeply learned understanding of the animating ideas behind Western/American political organization with keen observation of what was happening on the ground in foreign countries.  Here’s a brief summation from Robert Kaplan’s article:

“• The fact that the world is modernizing does not mean that it is Westernizing. The impact of urbanization and mass communications, coupled with poverty and ethnic divisions, will not lead to peoples’ everywhere thinking as we do.

• Asia, despite its ups and downs, is expanding militarily and economically. Islam is exploding demographically. The West may be declining in relative influence.

• Culture-consciousness is getting stronger, not weaker, and states or peoples may band together because of cultural similarities rather than because of ideological ones, as in the past.

• The Western belief that parliamentary democracy and free markets are suitable for everyone will bring the West into conflict with civilizations—notably, Islam and the Chinese—that think differently.

• In a multi-polar world based loosely on civilizations rather than on ideologies, Americans must reaffirm their Western identity.”

See Also:  Google books has ‘Political Order In Changing Societies‘ and ‘Who Are We?:  The Challenges To America’s National Identity‘  (previews)available.

Huntington’s page at Harvard here.  Reihan Salam has a short piece here.

From Prospect: Eric Kaufmann On ‘The Meaning Of Huntington’

Also On This Site: Francis Fukuyama, a neconservative up until the Iraq War or so, student of Huntington’s, and author off The End Of History, has a view that modernization and Westernization are more closely united.  Fukuyama envisions a Western State which has an endpoint that the minds of men might be able to know.   This breaks with Karl Marx’s end point of Communism rising from the ashes of capitalism, is more Hegelian via Alexander Kojeve in Paris, and advocates for a State that ought to be bigger than it is now in the U.S.  This requires a more moral bureaucratic class to lead us here at home and perhaps an almost one worlder-ish type Super-Government for all.  Can you see limited government, life, liberty and property from here?:  From The Atlantic: Samuel Huntington’s Death And Life’s WorkFrom The American Interest Online: Francis Fukuyama On Samuel Huntington

Has Fukuyama turned away from Hegel and toward Darwin? Adam Kirsch Reviews Francis Fukuyama’s New Book At The City Journal: ‘The Dawn Of Politics’……Peter Singer discusses Hegel and MarxFrom Philosophy And Polity: ‘Historicism In German Political Theory’

Adam Garfinkle At The American Interest: ‘What Did The Arab Spring Really Change?’…Liberal Internationalism is hobbling us, and the safety of even the liberal internationalist doctrine if America doesn’t lead?…Via Youtube-Uncommon Knowledge With Fouad Ajami And Charles Hill

-Dexter Filkins on Iran here.

From Slate: ‘In Aleppo, Syria, Mohamed Atta Thought He Could Build The Ideal Islamic City’Lawrence Wright At The New Yorker: ‘The Man Behind Bin Laden’

5 thoughts on “Adam Garfinkle At The American Interest: ‘Testing The ”War Of Ideas”

  1. I agree with Garfinkle. Muslims are playing checkers and we in the West are playing chess. When we complain about the way their society is organized it is like a chess player complaining about a legitimate move in checkers that would not be acceptable to a chess player. The problem is that we have no common standard to evaluate both sets of rules.

    • I agree with a lot of it, definitely. Even reasonably deep analyses will consistently be overcome and challenged by actors, too, especially radical ones, and also the simple churn of human life. For many, the ideas are either moral absolutes, or providing the frameworks for action.

  2. Or maybe: ‘Rook to Knight 7’ Abdul.


    Are you sure you don’t want to be part of the Global Human Rights Chess Club?

    I thought we talked about this…

  3. Not entirely convinced by the Garfinkle piece. “No compulsion in Islam” seems to be misread: you have a choice, but it’s Hobson’s choice: the choice of Islam or slavery, Islam or dhimmitude, Islam or death. “Now, is this an ideology? It seems a bit sparse to qualify.” Yes, it’s an ideology. The Sharia spells out what “an ideology at a minimum needs to specify”, to wit, “some ideal relationship between society, state, and authority; and some ideal relationship between a given society and the world outside it.” This is what the radicals are trying to impose, not mere grievance for grievance’s sake.

    As for the distinction between theology and ideology, modern Western ideologies have religious roots: Hobbes’ Leviathan is full of theology, and Locke’s Two Treatises contain large chunks of theology, and that Marx got the core of his ideas from the Saint-Simonians, a Christian sect. Garfinkle writes, “Theology is a recursive, non-falsifiable system of ideas about abstract matters.” So is (for instance) Marxism. “Ideology, on the other hand, as abstract as it can and often does get, is at length testable against the flow of historical reality.” Yet, there are still Marxists and Maoists in the world. The thing about unfalsifiability is that it is illusory. When constructing a big complex of ideas such as a religion or a secular ideology, making sure that it contains no falsifiable propositions is a Herculean task that is sure to fail in the long run.

  4. Peregrino,

    Thanks for commenting! It seems if we apply falsifiability there is a lot of overlap, but it breaks down in some ways, too (don’t know if Garfinkle convinces me of his differences).

    Similarities I see:

    Ideology would likely be one thinker melding a series of deep metaphysical assertions and ideals together into a coherent system, often from many sources.

    Theology is likely one, or more often many, thinkers doing much the same, but is concerned with religious belief and God (in fact, some of its origins are found in Platonic idealism, and Augustine, for example, applied Roman ideals to Christian doctrine, just as the Roman empire fell apart).

    They’re systems, and they might likely hang together better if they contain non-falsifiable assertions. Just design some abstract system well enough, and it may live on forever, in some capacity.

    Some differences, perhaps:

    Marxism, for example, is not necessarily concerned with moral ends, but rather functions as a theory of history, with supposed predictive power over what will happen. It’s more about the political economy and claims the mantle of ‘science’ for itself.

    Christian doctrine is full of specific ‘oughts and shoulds’, and claims to have answers to the ‘what, why, who’ questions, of life. It places its followers in a specific relationship with a transcendent God, and promises access beyond the ‘material world’ to everlasting life, and a purpose to the suffering in this life.

    The Marxist claims knowledge of empirical reality as it is, and what will happen. He can be sneaky about how he tells you, but it’s ‘science,’ or good enough to act on in this world. This knowledge is available here and now. A lot of ideologies function this way. True enough to describe the world and bring about the world they describe.

    ***The sciences are much more humble. They require some suspension of disbelief, but mostly when you’re following the math. Pure math just tells you how something is true, through a proof, and shows you how it got there. You can apply it yourself, and check for yourself. The physical sciences apply such math to actual observation, but as Popper would argue, they’re falsifiable, and not intended to have ideologies attached, nor to tell you what nature is, rather just, how it behaves.

    The religious believer is proposing revealed truth of a transcendent God at work in the world, revealing himself to you, and requires your faith and submission to this metaphysical construct, and his Earthly authority, in many cases.

    Both ideology and theology have experience with authority, and men in power using and abusing that power, and just how to design a system that endures and (I think), maintains certain freedoms, but theology has a different set of claims.

    I wonder if applying falsifiability to Leo Strauss’ reason/revelation distinction, there isn’t some conflict.

    I think Garfinkle may just be suggesting that claiming ISIS is only ideological is convenient for some in the West (the ones who see all religions as quaintly anachronistic, and equivalent through a certain Western lens), and that we shouldn’t forget they are explicitly religious. They are a branch of Salafist, Sunni Islam with a clear path (as they see it) to a Caliphate in this world, and with obvious connections to the Q’uran too

    Don’t know if/what I’ve succeeded here, but I’ve got to go to work.

    Also, we’d probably need to make distinctions between Islam/Christianity and the actual fascistic elements in both, I’m guessing.


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