In 1989 Francis Fukuyama proudly proclaimed that the world had reached the “end of history”. As the USSR fell into disarray and the Iron Curtain came tumbling down, the world was catapulted towards the acceptance of a liberal democratic political model and the neoliberal economics of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. It is of course ironic that this global acceptance of a uniform political and economic system has coincided with an unprecedented rise in global political protest action, violence, resistance and unfortunately — terrorism.
Although the proponents of the unipolar post-Cold War world have written the final chapter in the history of the world, the domino effects of the door slamming on our collective history can be felt in the Middle East 25 years on. The Islamic State (Isis), which has captured and now manages large swathes of Iraqi and Syrian territory, is merely a casualty of the death of history.
The brutal Islamism and violence of Isis have rightly shocked the world. And in recent weeks western nations have recoiled at the evidence suggesting that thousands of citizens from countries such as Belgium, the UK, the US and Germany are actively participating in the political and moral atrocities being committed in Syria and Iraq.
How is it possible that a young man from Brussels — the heart of European politics, unity and values — could end up on the dusty streets of Mosul as a jihadi? How can such extremism emerge from the belly of a system that actively promotes multiculturalism, human rights and democracy?
The answer lies at the heart of the system itself. In its devotion to one way of doing things, one way of structuring the marketplace and economics, one way of thinking and participating, the system has killed plural politics.
Unfortunately, the end of history was accompanied by the death of politics.
In this post-political world the major democracies are largely structured on consensus. The political market place is now saturated with similar voices arguing over minor details, with the traditional boundaries between left and right wing erased. Erstwhile British prime minister Tony Blair’s statement that “we are all Thatcherites now” isn’t just a sound bite — it’s a global reality.
With the death of plural politics in national politics, the international political arena has also embraced consensus on the direction the world is moving in. the World Bank and International Monetary Fund even call their general prescriptions for funding the “Washington Consensus” — a set of economic prerequisites centred on minimal state interaction and regulation of the economy. This Washington Consensus has been accompanied by a global devotion to human rights — one which is centred on the liberal democratic political system.
For political theorist Chantal Mouffe, the absence of (political) pluralism allows for the entrenchment of antagonism. Where people and states do not have legitimate means to express divergent views they turn to extreme, illegitimate ways to challenge the dominant discourse and way of doing things. In other words, the hegemony of one particular political model (globally and locally) fosters alienation and hostility when divergent views are excluded on the basis of their dissent and divergence.
In the international political arena, with its creation of an “us” and “them”, Isis is just another menace, in a long list of “evil” regimes/states. Just like Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, these menacing states (or groups, in the case of Isis) are rebuked by other nations, who do so while legitimising other problematic states that buy into the consensus one way or another. For example Saudi Arabia, with its awful human-rights record, remains a part of the “us” simply because of its status as an important cog in the Washington Consensus’ economic machine.
Obviously Isis actions and terror must be condemned. But to merely condemn the terrorists while failing to address the system that has created them would be a terrible mistake. Reinforcing the “us/them” paradigm merely confirms the status quo and fails to address why people (and indeed, states and groups) turn against the tide.
The young boy-turned-jihadi from Brussels would likely not have turned to violence and terrorism in a system that allows him to feel like he belongs and could express divergent views. People and states that are excluded and isolated are turning to violence and political extremism to have their voices heard. Recent research into Islamic fundamentalism confirms that many young men are simply joining the brutal jihadi movement because it provides them with group-unity and a sense of belonging. These terror groups give people a voice; they provide them with a “political home” they didn’t have before.
In the face of growing global terrorism people should channel their outrage towards establishing political systems that do not exclude voices and allow for plurality. And nations should begin to re-examine the global narrative of “us/them” and a “right/wrong” way of doing things. This could allow for the creation of an international political arena filled with global players that are more willing to accept democracy and fundamental human rights, instead of turning to violence, abuse and discrimination to challenge the dominant discourse.