By Lee Smith
(Editor’s note: Friend, colleague, and all-around smart guy Lee Smith, whom I know well from Beirut, Lebanon, wrote this essay specifically for this Web site. — MJT)
In an article in the June 4 New Republic, Who’s Afraid of Tariq Ramadan, Paul Berman reviewed some of the writings of Tariq Ramadan, and his career among the Western intelligentsia, specifically the New York Times, which has run several pieces on Ramadan, including a profile written by Ian Buruma. Berman concluded his article arguing that something in Western intellectual culture has changed. When journalists and intellectuals glide over the illiberal ideas of illiberal ideologues like Ramadan and attack liberal activists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then something has changed.
Now Ian Buruma has responded, sort of. In an op-ed last week syndicated in the Guardian and the LA Times among others, Buruma shows what has changed. It is an article riddled with errors of fact, inconsistencies and indirection. I want to go through parts of the article in detail. Buruma begins:
Bernard Kouchner, France’s new foreign minister, has a long and distinguished record as an advocate of intervention in countries where human rights are abused. As a co-founder of Doctors Without Borders, he stated that “we were establishing the moral right to interfere inside someone else’s country.” Saddam Hussein’s mass murder of Iraqi citizens is why he supported the war in Iraq.
Kouchner, one of the subjects of Paul Berman’s last book Power and the Idealists, has held his new job now for a little more than a month, during which time he has traveled to Africa in an effort to redirect French policy there, in Chad and Sudan especially. So why is he being called to account for his stance on the Iraq war at this point? Does Buruma believe this might affect his credibility and thus his ability to perform his new job effectively? No, he is writing about France’s number-one diplomat in order to explain why Jews support the use of US force.
One should always be careful about attributing motives to other people’s views. But Kouchner himself has often said that the murder of his Russian-Jewish grandparents in Auschwitz inspired his humanitarian interventionism… The fact that many prominent Jewish intellectuals in Europe and the United States – often, like Kouchner, with a leftist past – are sympathetic to the idea of using American armed force to further the cause of human rights and democracy in the world, may derive from the same wellspring. Any force is justified to avoid another Shoah, and those who shirk their duty to support such force are regarded as no better than collaborators with evil.
Kouchner, whose late father was Jewish, has consistently polled as the most popular political figure in France because his countrymen believe that he represents something important about the nation to the rest of the world, not because he is a Jewish intellectual. With the significant exception of Tariq Ramadan and his followers, Europe thinks of Kouchner not as a Jewish intellectual, but rather as a figure driven by humanitarian principles and universal values.
And as is it is not just the shoah that motivates prominent Jews, intellectuals and otherwise, from drawing attention to genocides like Darfur, it is not only the Jews who wish to prevent “another Shoah” — a Hebrew word for “catastrophe,” and synonymous with the noun typically used in the English-speaking world by Jews and non-Jews alike to refer to the murder of six million Jews.
If we were less haunted by memories of appeasing the Nazi regime, and of the ensuing genocide, people might not be as concerned about human rights as they are. And by no means do all those who work to protect the rights of others invoke the horrors of the Third Reich to justify Anglo-American armed intervention.
But the term “Islamofascism” was not coined for nothing.
It invites us to see a big part of the Islamic world as a natural extension of Nazism. Saddam Hussein, who was hardly an Islamist, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is, are often described as natural successors to Adolf Hitler. And European weakness, not to mention the “treason” of its liberal scribes, paving the way to an Islamist conquest of Europe (“Eurabia”) is seen as a ghastly echo of the appeasement of the Nazi threat.
No one has ever called Saddam an Islamist, nor has Islamofascism ever been used to describe Baathism, though its ideological affiliations with National Socialism are well known.
As for the Islamist movement, it has long been compared to fascism and, as Martin Kramer shows, by some distinguished Orientalists with first-hand experience of both fascism and the Islamic world: Maxime Rodinson, a French Marxist whose parents died in Auschwitz, and Manfred Halpern, who was born in Germany, fled the Nazis in 1937, and joined the US Army to fight in Europe during WW2.
Of late the word Islamofascism been used, most notably by President Bush, not to elide Hitler and Saddam/ Ahmadinejad/ Bin Laden/ Nasrallah/ Hamas/ Bashar al-Asad, but rather to distinguish militant Islam from traditional Muslim practice as a way to signal that the US war on terror is against a type of Islam, not the world’s one billion Muslims.
What’s puzzling is that Buruma co-authored a book a few years ago with the Israeli historian Avishai Margalit, Occidentalism, arguing that militant Islam was consonant with a number of anti-Western, or anti-liberal ideas that had antecedents in the West, like fascism. It appears he is no longer interested in elaborating the thesis.
At any rate, what invites us to see Saddam as a natural extension of Nazism are the mass graves he filled with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. As for Ahmadinejad, there is his exterminationist rhetoric directed at Israel (“a world without Zionism”) and the US (“a world without America”) and threats to attack the Arab Gulf states.
Revolutionary Islamism is undoubtedly dangerous and bloody. Yet analogies with the Third Reich, although highly effective as a way to denounce people with whose views one disagrees, are usually false. No Islamist armies are about to march into Europe – indeed, most victims of Revolutionary Islamism live in the Middle East, not in Europe – and Ahmadinejad, his nasty rhetoric notwithstanding, does not have a fraction of Hitler’s power.
Is Buruma still talking about Kouchner? The French Foreign Minister understands that most of the victims of Muslim-word authoritarianism are in the Middle East — his work with the Kurds dates back many years. Even in Europe most of its victims are Muslim and many of them women, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali who, as Berman and others have shown, gets mixed grades from Buruma.
It is true that Ahmadinejad has a fraction of Hitler’s power and many people are eager to keep it that way by preventing the Islamic Republic of Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons program.
So why the high alarm about European appeasement, especially among the neoconservatives? Why the easy equation of Islamism with Nazism?
What does this have to do with Bernard Kouchner? Is Buruma trying to make an easy equation between a French socialist famous for his humanitarian work and American policymakers, military strategists and journalists affiliated with the Republican party? Kouchner has offered to mediate a dialogue between all parties in Lebanon, including Hezbollah, hardly a gesture that would bring him within the embrace of the neoconservatives, who understand the Party of God as part of a dangerous Iranian axis. So what is the connection between Kouchner and the neocons?
Israel is often mentioned as a reason. But Israel can mean different things to different people. To certain Evangelical Christians, it is the holy site of the Second Coming of the Messiah. To many Jews, it is the one state that will always offer refuge. To neoconservative ideologues, it is the democratic oasis in a desert of tyrannies.
It seems that in Buruma’s worldview even Christians are motivated primarily by self-interest. To most Christians, whether they have apocalypse on their mind or not, Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, as described in both testaments of the Christian Bible, and attested to in historical documents and the archeological record. To many Jews it is not a “refuge,” but a Jewish state where Jewish people have the right to determine their own fate, as a nation and as individuals. And while we are listing what Israel means to different people, it is worth noting that to some Muslims, including the president of Iran, the General Secretary of Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, it is a curse that must be wiped off the face of the earth.
Defending Israel against its Islamic enemies may indeed be a factor in the existential alarmism that underlies the present “war on terror.” A nuclear-armed Iran would certainly make Israel feel more vulnerable. But it is probably overstated as an explanation. Kouchner did not advocate Western intervention in Bosnia or Kosovo because of Israel. If concern for Israel played a part in Paul Wolfowitz’s advocacy of war in Iraq, it was probably a minor one. Both men were motivated by common concerns for human rights and democracy, as well as perhaps by geopolitical considerations.
If defending Israel was a factor, there is nothing odd about upholding the right of a UN member state to exist when its many enemies have threatened it with extinction. On a similar principle, Great Britain entered WW2. But if concern for Israel was a “minor one,” if it was indeed a factor at all, why does Buruma raise the issue to begin with? And how did Paul Wolfowitz get dragged into this? What is the connection between him and Kouchner?
Still, Islamist rhetoric, adopted by Ahmedinejad among others, is deliberately designed to stir up memories of the Shoah. So perhaps the existential fear of some Western intellectuals is easier to explain than their remarkable, sometimes fawning trust in the U.S. government to save the world by force.
Actually, Ahmadinejad’s rhetorical tactics are a bit more complicated. One, he denies the Holocaust ever happened, two, argues that the Palestinians should not have to pay for the sins of Europe (while also imploring Germany to stop succumbing to Zionist blackmail), and, three, threatens destruction of the Jewish state.
I cannot think of any Western intellectual who supported the Iraq war without qualification at the outset or since. However, the fact that some Western intellectuals are not automatically suspicious of US force does not need to be theorized or psychologized; it as easy to explain as their existential fear of another genocide. This is especially so in France, which US force liberated in 1944 from none other than the Nazis. While some French intellectuals are well known for their anti-Americanism, consider Andre Glucksmann who coined the phrase “the right to D-Day,” or the right to be liberated by a foreign power from a totalitarian and genocidal regime.
The explanation of this mysterious trust may lie elsewhere. Many neocons emerged from a leftist past, in which a belief in revolution from above was commonplace: “people’s democracies” yesterday, “liberal democracies” today.
It is true that many neocons, at least from the first generation, emerged from a leftist past, but they were socialists or Trotskyists, and “revolution from above” was a Stalinist “commonplace.” “Peoples’ democracies” was the euphemism by which the Soviet Union maintained its hegemony over its Eastern European satellite states; only in Buruma’s mind is there a facile correlation between “peoples’ democracies” and liberal democracies.
Among Jews and other minorities, another historical memory may also play a part: the protection of the imperial state. Austrian and Hungarian Jews were among the most fiercely loyal subjects of the Austro-Hungarian emperor, because he shielded them from the violent nationalism of the majority populations.
How did we get from the City College cafeteria to the Austro-Hungarian empire? And now we have moved from Jews of the political left to Jews of the political right. Austrian conservatives were loyal to the emperor. The socialists obviously did not love royalty.
Moreover, it is worth noting that many Austrian Jews were loyal subjects not because they expected “protection,” but because they believed in the enlightenment values of Europe. The playwright Theodor Herzl did not think of himself a Jew, never mind expect to be shielded as one, but rather as an Austrian by nationality and a German by culture. It was when the founder of Zionism recognized that Europe had no intention to live up to its universalist principles that he began advocating a Jewish state where Jews could live as free men.
Polish and Russian Jews, at least at the beginning of the communist era, were often loyal subjects of the communist state, because it promised (falsely, as it turned out) to protect them against the violence of anti- Semitic nationalists.
It is not obvious that Russian and Polish Jewish communists who risked jail and death for their political commitments in the pre-communist era were motivated primarily by a desire to protect themselves. One could pick a better place to hide from the Cossacks than at the head of the Red Army, for instance. Nor is it clear how at the end of the communist era Jewish prisoners of conscience, like Natan Sharansky, were looking mostly to save their own skins. At any rate, what does this have to do with Kouchner? Or, how did Buruma get from a Jewish humanitarian to Jews ostensibly acting on self-preservation instincts?
If it were really true that the fundamental existence of our democratic Western world were about to be destroyed by an Islamist revolution, it would only make sense to seek protection in the full force of the U.S. informal empire.
If it were really true that Jews mostly look out for themselves and other Jews, and humanitarian Jews are moved to act by the specter of past Jewish catastrophes, and Jewish US officials are desperate to prevent future Jewish disasters, where Israel is considered a “refuge,” and the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Soviet Union sought to be “protected” and “shielded” by their overlords, then according to such logic it would only make sense to believe that Jews now seek American “protection.”
But if one sees our current problems in less apocalyptic terms, then another kind of trahison des clercs (treason of the intellectuals) comes into view: the blind cheering-on of a sometimes foolish military power embarked on unnecessary wars that cost more lives than they were intended to save.
In other words, Iraq is the price we are all paying for a Jewish interpretation of modernity.
In 2003 Tariq Ramadan posted an article on a Muslim Web site, www.oumma.com, in which he condemned several French writers of forsaking their reputations as “universalist” thinkers by taking positions based on narrowly sectarian, or what the French call “communitarian,” concerns. How else to explain that these intellectuals failed to condemn the policies of Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the war in Iraq. Ramadan’s charge rested on the premise that these positions could not plausibly be rational, and must therefore be extra-rational, or emotional. Ramadan argued they took these positions because they are Jewish. Kouchner was one of the figures Ramadan accused. To Ramadan, Kouchner the humanitarian, the socialist and co-founder of Doctors without Borders, was a Jewish intellectual.
I am not sure Buruma meant to replicate so closely the argument of his New York Times profile subject. In fact it seems he disagrees in places. “The architect of this operation in the heart of the Bush administration is Paul Wolfowitz,” wrote Ramadan, “a notorious Zionist, who has never concealed that the fall of Saddam Hussein would guarantee a better security for Israel with its economic advantages assured.” No, writes Buruma: “If concern for Israel played a part in Paul Wolfowitz’s advocacy of war in Iraq, it was probably a minor one.”
“One should always be careful about attributing motives to other people’s views,” Buruma writes, and then proceeds to attribute communitarian motives to Jews from Kouchner to Wolfowitz and other “prominent Jewish intellectuals” who may talk about humanitarianism, communism or liberal democracy but really see the world primarily as Jews. One should refuse to engage Islamists on their own terms, because this is what happens to liberal discourse when such ideologues are legitimized by Western journalists and intellectuals. And no doubt, compared to Sayyid Qutb, Ramadan is indeed a “moderate,” and according to that scale Ayaan Hirsi Ali is definitely an “enlightenment absolutist,” because anyone who stands for such universalist values is an “extremist.” But that is their scale; on ours, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a feminist and liberal activist, and an op-ed published in Western papers by a famous journalist that resorts to communitarian reasoning is a gross exception and not the rule.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
In his article, Berman attributes the “string of bumbles, timidities, gaffes, omissions, miscomprehensions, and slanders” to two developments: First, “the unimaginable rise of Islamism since the time of the Rushdie fatwa. The second is terrorism.” I think that what he means by this is not that journalists and intellectuals are necessarily terrified of getting blown up in a London car bombing, but that they have incorporated the fearful messages of their subjects and responded accordingly. The issue has been with us much longer than we usually recognize.
In 1969, the American academic Richard P. Mitchell published a groundbreaking work on Egypt’s Islamist movement, The Society of the Muslim Brothers. Some of the Brothers didn’t like what Mitchell had to say in his largely sympathetic book and circulated a letter that asserted he was a CIA operative. The effort was meant to discredit and threaten him, a scholar who, according to the Muslim Brotherhood, was actually a front-line agent in the war to destroy Islam.
It is among the oldest of Islamist conceits, dating back to the end of the 19th-century, that any foreigner researching Islamic societies who is not writing primarily out of sympathy with his subject is an agent of Western empire. Edward Said’s Orientalism merely recast the Islamist paranoid style as postmodern critique. He found agents of empire everywhere in the Western media and academy; it was the basis of much his career. Since power determined textual strategies, there was no such thing as disinterested intellectual work and thus anyone whose work was not sympathetic to the subaltern was a racist. If you were in the academic industry, jobs, publishing contracts, committee appointments, etc., depended on it. If you were outside the academy, you were merely tarred as a racist, or, if an Arabic-speaking Middle Easterner like Fouad Ajami and Kanan Makiya, a “native informant,” that is to say, a traitor, just as progressive-minded Western intellectuals and journalists today question Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Muslim “authenticity.” Maxime Rodinson found more than a hint of Stalinism in Said’s methods; the author of Orientalism was an American takfiri.
It was Said who first naturalized Islamist discourse over a quarter of a century ago and as such helped set the terms by which Western intellectuals and reporters could exercise their vocation with respect to the Muslim world. Said was apparently surprised by the Rushdie fatwa and wrote an essay in defense of his friend, only showing that the bourgeois academic had failed to grasp his sources. The key historical episode then is Michel Foucault’s 1979 dispatches from Tehran. It is hardly coincidental that the guiding intellectual spirit of Orientalism was in love with Iran’s Islamic revolution. Foucault, the apostle of purgative violence, Foucault the suicide and the blood-letter, was hardly a useful idiot; unlike Said, he knew exactly what was unfolding before him.
By the time Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and decapitated in Pakistan everyone already knew the rules. What was so shocking? That his captors had been very public about their hatred of Jews? But we have internalized Islamist grievances enough to know the many, many issues the Muslim world has with the Zionist movement. What is new? That Western journalists and intellectuals are now manufacturing those arguments by invoking the ethno-religious background of a person to determine the quality of an idea. It can’t possibly derive from objective sources of universal principles, rather it must be serving some particular interest. If not Jewish interests, then maybe others.
Remember that the journalistic outrage over the Pearl murder wasn’t about the anti-Semitism of his assassins, but that the US government hadn’t done enough to explain to the murderers of American citizens that American law prohibits clandestine operators from using journalist cover. Didn’t they know that Pearl wasn’t really a CIA agent? Didn’t they understand that he was a sympathetic listener? And today, don’t they know that Haleh Esfandiari has counseled the US to engage with Tehran? Why do they go after the good guys? I mean, not that it’s ok to kill anyone, but Theo Van Gogh pissed off everyone and Ayaan Hirsi Ali has definitely hurt a lot of Muslim feelings.
Why do extremists go after Western moderates? Because that is how they redraw the boundaries of liberal discourse to their own liking. Because that is how they get Western journalists and intellectuals to mainstream their ideas about Jews and ostracize figures like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other Muslim and Arab liberals. Because that is how Islamist moderates like Tariq Ramadan acquire shares of power. But really this is the same as asking, why do terrorists attack civilians? Because that is terrorism.