Epstein: "John Locke’s Lesson for the Arab World"

John Locke’s Lesson for the Arab World
Richard A. Epstein
Defining Ideas
September 18, 2012

This past week saw the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American diplomats in Libya, while a fresh wave of riots and attacks on American embassies and schools took place throughout the Islamic world, from North Africa to South Asia. Clearly, the so-called Arab Spring is in disarray as intolerance rises rapidly throughout the region.

These unnerving events should have come as no surprise. The dangers of fundamentalism were detailed in 1995, when religious scholars Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby completed their extensive eight-year Fundamentalism Project for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which charted the rise of conservative religious movements around the world.

Their writings warned of the serious dangers that fundamentalism posed to democratic institutions around the globe. Fundamentalist movements, they argued, are marked by a strong set of interlocking hierarchical arrangements in which power rests with a single person or group that wields absolute authority over their subject population. On the one hand, husbands can dominate their wives and children; on the other, religious observers must unquestioningly follow a complex set of rules, which prevents their exposure during schooling to intellectual and social influences from the outside that might temper their views.

Often fundamentalism is viewed in religious and moral terms. But it is equally instructive to think about fundamentalism in terms of political economy, which makes the contrast between it and western democracy all the more vivid. Fundamentalists believe that “the chosen” are entitled, as if by divine writ, to exercise monopoly power in order to impose their beliefs. Democracies thrive on the rival worldview that competition between different groups best allows all individuals to decide how to optimally live and organize their lives.

Richard A. Epstein