A stream of commentators has been asserting that the tragedy of 11 September proves that I was utterly wrong to have said more than a decade ago that we had reached the end of history. The chorus began almost immediately, with George Will asserting that history had returned from vacation, and Fareed Zakaria declaring the end of the end of history.
It is, on the face of it, nonsensical and insulting to the memory of those who died on 11 September – as well as to those who are now participating in military raids over Afghanistan – to declare that this unprecedented attack did not rise to the level of a historical event. But the way in which I used the word "history" was different. It referred to the progress of mankind over the centuries toward modernity, which is characterised by institutions like liberal democracy and capitalism.
My observation, made back in 1989 on the eve of the collapse of communism, was that this evolutionary process did seem to be bringing ever larger parts of the world toward modernity. And if we looked beyond liberal democracy and markets, there was nothing else towards which we could expect to evolve. Hence the end of history. While there were retrograde areas that resisted that process, it was hard to imagine an alternative civilisation in which people would genuinely want to live – particularly after socialism, monarchy, fascism, and other varieties of authoritarian rule had been discredited.
This view has been challenged by many people, and perhaps most articulately by Samuel Huntington. He argued that rather than progressing toward a single global system, the world remained mired in a "clash of civilisations" where six or seven large cultural groups coexist without converging and constitute the new fracture lines of global conflict. Since the successful attack on the centre of global capitalism was evidently perpetrated by Islamic extremists unhappy with the very existence of Western civilisation, observers have been handicapping the Huntington "clash" view over my own "end of history" hypothesis rather heavily.
I believe that in the end I remain right. Modernity is a very powerful freight train that will not be derailed by recent events, however painful and unprecedented. Democracy and free markets will continue to expand over time as the dominant organising principles for much of the world. But it is worthwhile thinking about what the true scope of the present challenge is.
It has always been my belief that modernity has a cultural basis. Liberal democracy and free markets do not work at all times and everywhere. They work best in societies with certain values, whose origins may not be entirely rational. It is not an accident that modern liberal democracy emerged first in the Christian West, since the universalism of democratic rights can be seen in many ways as a secular form of Christian universalism.
The central question raised by Mr. Huntington is whether institutions of modernity will work only in the West, or whether there is something broader in their appeal that will allow them to make headway in non-Western societies. I believe there is. The proof lies in the progress that democracy and free markets have made in regions like East Asia, Latin America, Orthodox Europe and South Asia. Proof is also offered by the millions of Third World immigrants who vote with their feet every year to live in Western societies and eventually assimilate to Western values.
But there does seem to be something about Islam, or at least fundamentalist Islam, that makes Muslim societies particularly resistant to modernity. Of all contemporary cultural systems, the Islamic world has the fewest democracies (Turkey alone qualifies), and contains no countries that have made the transition from Third to First World status in the manner of South Korea or Singapore.
There are plenty of non-Westerners who prefer the economic and technological part of modernity and hope to have it without having to accept democratic politics or Western cultural values as well (for example, China or Singapore). There are others who like both the economic and political versions, but just can't figure out how to make it happen (Russia is an example). For them, transition to modernity may be long and painful. But there are no insuperable cultural barriers likely to prevent them from getting there.
Islam, by contrast, is the only cultural system that regularly seems to produce people, like Osama bin Laden or the Taliban, who reject modernity lock, stock and barrel. This raises the question of how representative such people are of the larger Muslim community. The answer that politicians East and West have been putting out since 11 September is that those sympathetic with the terrorists are a "tiny minority" of Muslims. It is important for them to say this, to prevent Muslims as a group from becoming targets of hatred. The problem is that dislike and hatred of America and what it stands for are clearly much more widespread than that.
Certainly the number of people willing to go on suicide missions and actively conspire against the US is tiny. But sympathy for them – feelings of schadenfreude at collapsing towers, an immediate sense of satisfaction that the US was getting what it deserved, to be followed only later by pro forma expressions of disapproval – is characteristic of much more than a "tiny minority" of Muslims. It extends from the middle classes in countries like Egypt to immigrants in the West.
This broader dislike and hatred would seem to represent something much deeper than mere opposition to American policies like support for Israel, encompassing a hatred of the underlying society. Perhaps, as many commentators have speculated, the hatred is born out of a resentment of Western success and Muslim failure. But rather than psychologise the Muslim world, it makes more sense to ask whether radical Islam constitutes a serious alternative to Western liberal democracy.
Even for Muslims themselves, political Islam has proven much more appealing in the abstract than in reality. After 23 years of rule by fundamentalist clerics, most Iranians, in particular nearly everyone under 30, would like to live in a far more liberal society.
All of the anti-American hatred that has been drummed up does not translate into a viable political programme that Muslim societies will be able to follow in the years ahead.
We remain at the end of history because there is only one system that will continue to dominate world politics – that of the liberal-democratic West. This does not imply a world free of conflict, or the disappearance of culture as a distinguishing characteristic of societies. But the struggle we face is not the clash of several distinct and equal cultures struggling amongst one another like the great powers of 19th-century Europe. The clash consists of a series of rearguard actions from societies whose traditional existence is indeed threatened by modernisation. The strength of the backlash reflects the severity of this threat. But time and resources are on the side of modernity, and I see no lack of a will to prevail in the West today.
The writer is a professor of international political economy at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. This article first appeared in the 'Wall Street Journal'
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