Somewhere during Lawrence of Arabia’s blockbuster career, his bosses wondered if he was becoming “more Arab” in the desert to which they sent him to lead a revolt against the Ottoman Empire. In an endearing cue to imperial haughtiness, Field Marshal Lord Allenby asks if his man had “gone native.”
Indeed the spymaster and legendary British officer became quickly enmeshed in the tangled web he weaved back at the turn of the last century.
Likewise, when communism dawned in the 1920s, Vladimir Lenin ordered a strategy of nurturing “useful idiots” — by which he meant a contingent of communist Lawrences in the West. It worked, spawning hundreds of thousands of enamored scholars, intellectuals, experts, and dreamy romantics waving the red flags of Bolsheviks over the 70 years of the Cold War.
Today’s Islamist Lawrences are being cultivated among a broad swath of political analysts, scholars, anthropologists, pundits, missionaries, and even spies dissecting militant Islam and Islamofascism. While most carry out illuminating and necessary work, the fish they bait ends up ensnaring many.
A few recent catches: the archbishop of Canterbury urging the introduction of Sharia law in Britain; Harvard University, a bastion of secular scholarship, shutting its gym to men to accommodate Muslim women; authorities at Minneapolis’s international airport negotiating for months with 700 Somali Muslim taxi drivers who refused to pick up passengers carrying liquor or depending on guide dogs.
Then there was President George Bush launching his Muslim initiative last June from the Islamic Center of Washington, a Saudi institution distributing educational material instructing Muslims to segregate themselves from other Americans.
Among other things, the Saudi-funded publications admonish Muslims in America “to dissociate from infidels, hate them for their religion, never to rely on them for support, and always oppose them in every way according to Islamic law.” The question: how was it that among the estimated five million Muslim Americans with hugely varied institutions, the president’s advisors picked a Saudi Islamofascist ghetto as a venue?
This cluelessness is spreading into the academy and the arts too.
Witness the Guggenheim Museum of New York and the Louvre of Paris, along with Carnegie Mellon, Texas A&M, and multiple U.S. institutions, rushing to open branches in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, where laws institutionalize bigotry against women, Sharia bans images, and the government condones grievous violations of human rights for millions of expatriates of other religions.
Imagine the contortions of folks at Yale, Stanford, or Oxford when they have to explain founding campuses in Riyadh where women are not allowed or can participate only via closed circuit TV.
Useful idiocy reaches a higher plane among Western pundits who propagate the Saudi view of reverse progress, namely that Islamic societies have “particular requirements” and are evolving as “different models,” of which we should not be “‘judgmental.”
Fundamentalist creep is engulfing bastions of respectability in Western media too. At the start of Turkey’s slide away from secularism last May, the Wall Street Journal glossed over Prime Minister Erdogan’s aggressive Islamization, criticizing his secular opponents instead. The Economist argued his policy is tolerable, “even if it means enduring a bad, ineffective, corrupt, or mildly Islamist government.”
Last April a major New York Times Magazine article by James Traub argued fervently on behalf of “Islamic democrats” singing the praises of a reborn Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This was followed by a major essay in Foreign Affairs, a weighty establishment publication, by Robert Leiken and Steven Brooke titled “The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood.” The piece declared the fundamentalist group acceptable, among other things, as some of its leaders were interviewed in English, appeared reasonable, listened to classical music, and knew of Shakespeare. The article was so lacking in inquisitiveness it merited being posted on the Muslim Brotherhood website — ikhwanonline.com — as part of their propaganda.
The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century, a recent book authored by respected Mideast analyst of the New Yorker Steve Coll, presents the human side of Osama bin Laden, who adopted modern technology in his terror and whose wealthy contracting father employed Christians and other infidels in his business.
We should come back to reality.
Mild Islamism is an oxymoron. Sharia law, which sanctions beating of wives and stoning for adultery, is irreconcilable with human rights. The Muslim Brotherhood founded Hamas, calls suicide bombings a good thing, and is the 21st-century version of the organized fascism of Hitler and Mussolini in the last century.
Youssef M. Ibrahim, a former Middle East correspondent for the New York Times and Energy Editor of the Wall Street Journal, is a freelance writer and Mideast political risk consultant based in New York.