I went to a book launch yesterday for Irving Kristol’s posthumous collection of essays, The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays 1942-2009. On hand to discuss the book was William Kristol, the author’s son and (with his mother, Gertrude Himmelfarb) co-editor of the capacious gathering of essays by the “godfather of neoconservatism.” Irving Kristol was one of our most percipient commentators about politics and society. His signature style in later years, when I got to know him, was a certain wry, semi-detached irony: concerned with what was happening to American society but also generally calm, amused, twinkling.
There were exceptions to this posture in Irving’s previously published writings. I think, for example, of his masterly essay “My Cold War” from 1993. “There is,” Irving wrote towards the end of that essay:
[N]o “after the Cold War” for me. So far from having ended, my cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos. It is an ethos that aims simultaneously at political and social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchy on the other. It cannot win, but it can make us all losers.
Good stuff, no?
Among Irving’s great talents as a social commentator were 1) a knack for compression — he could say more in a 1000 word op-ed piece than many writers manage in a book — and 2) a capacious, dialectical mind that could argue strongly for a particular point of view while at the same time accommodating or at least addressing contending perspectives.
I use the term “dialectical” advisedly. It belongs to the argot — how exciting it once seemed! — of Hegelian-Marxist thought, a species of which provided the fledgling Irving Kristol with an intellectual vocabulary and mode of argumentation. Kristol early on outgrew the dogmatism serious allegiance to Marxism demands but not the rhetorical nimbleness it inculcates.
I’ll have more to say about The Neoconservative Persuasion in a review. For now, I wish simply to recommend the book to my readers and, in a spirit that I hope Irving would endorse, say a few words about a conversation I had with another astute commentator on world affairs following the launch for The Neoconservative Persuasion. The subject was Islam, and my friend, responding to a couple of recent columns here (in particular, I suspect, Then and Now, Or, remember Iran as you think about Egypt, Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood & Oyster Stew, and maybe Alfred E. Neuman in the driver’s seat) cautioned me that “Islam is not just one thing.”
His point — may I say, “His point of course”? — is that like England’s Island Story, Islam forms a rich and varied tapestry. And it does so not only historically, but does so even now, today. It’s not only the case that not all Muslims are terrorists but also that the expression of “really existing Islam” differs widely from society to society. The “face” of Islam is widely different in Indonesia, say, from what it is in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, or Iran. Et, need I add?, cetera.
The question at issue today is Islam in Egypt. I have mentioned in a couple of columns the precedent of events in Iran in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini strode into town brandishing his Koran in one hand, his sword in another. Is it legitimate to worry that something like what happened in Iran could happen in Egypt?
The countries are markedly different from each other and 2011 is not 1979. We’ve passed, as Samuel Goldwyn is said to have put it, a lot of water under the bridge since then. Perhaps what happened in Iran is not an illuminating precedent. I think the jury is still out on that. Time will tell. What we do not have to wait around to discern is the yeasty influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. I have written about the MB in Egypt several times in this space, at some length in What Sauce Will Barack Obama Use When He Eats His Words?
The place of Egypt — the most populous Arab country — in the political metabolism of the Middle East is a complex affair. It has deep, if sometimes covert, relations with Israel, a fact that enrages the Muslim Brothers, for whom the destruction of Israel comes high on their list of desiderata. I suspect that my friend Andy McCarthy is right when he suggests that a more illuminating parallel to what might happen in Egypt is offered by Turkey — since Ataturk, the poster child for what a secular, modernized Islamic society might look like.
That was then. Over the last several years Turkey under its current leadership has been steadily shedding its Western, cosmopolitan values in favor of a return to Islamist theocracy. “This did not,” as Andy points out, “happen overnight.”
The Justice and Development Party (AKP), a disciplined, well-organized Islamist faction with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, managed to squeeze into power in 2002, even though it was a minority opposed by millions of pro-Western, secular Muslims. It increased its popularity by foreswearing any intention to impose sharia, avoiding the taint of financial corruption, adopting responsible economic policies, and only gradually enacting items on the Islamist punch-list — beginning with the ones that enjoyed broad support. Behind the scenes, it used its power both to infiltrate the military and to install its loyalists in important institutions (e.g., the banks, bureaucracy, judiciary, and education system).
Then what? You know the script:
Based on this performance, it won reelection with a narrow majority — no small thanks to cheerleading from Western governments and commentators about how Turkey under AKP rule symbolized a modern, “moderate” Islam. With that cover, the AKP promptly stepped up its Islamicization program, ordered arrests of its political opponents, and began challenging the military. To see what the Islamists could get away with, this challenge started with the arrests of a few officers. When there was no pushback, more prosecutions and harassment followed. It was clear that the military would not rise to the occasion, as the West always assumed it would.
Emboldened, the AKP regime has ended Turkey’s military cooperation with Israel and become an increasingly strident supporter of Palestinian “resistance.” Last spring, Turkey’s government financially backed the “peace flotilla” — an attempt by Brotherhood-tied Islamists and anti-American Leftists to break Israel’s blockade of Hamas in Gaza. Turkey now formally rejects the description of Hamas as a terrorist organization, referring to it as a democratically elected political organization that is merely defending its rightful territory.
That’s troubling, right? But now think about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt:
Unlike Turkey, Egypt has never undergone a rigorous, decades-long effort to purge Islam from public life. The AKP had a higher mountain to climb. If the Muslim Brotherhood gets its turn at the wheel and steers as shrewdly, the transformation of Egypt won’t happen tomorrow … but neither will it take the eight years Turkey needed.
When I was in high school, the Jesuits were fond of dispensing various admonitory formulae. One was the advice “Never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish.” (Another, I seem to recall, was “Persistent perversity provokes the patient pedagogue to produce particularly painful punishment,” but that is for another day.) Like one of Algernon Moncrieff’s apothegms, the injunction “Never deny,” etc. is perfectly phrased. But also like Algernon’s wittiest aperçus it is of dubious veracity. I suspect, however, that my well-meaning friend would like that bit of Jesuitical lore and might even urge its wisdom upon me in defense of his reminder that “Islam is not one thing.”
I said above that I knew that about Islam. In fact, though, I think it would be more accurate to say “Muslims are not one thing.” They differ profoundly from country A to country B, and they differ, too, within some countries. It’s not done to quote the Dutch politician Geert Wilders in polite company. The Establishment Narrative has declared him beyond the pale. But as I look around at how Islam has fared over the last several decades — at what has happened not just in Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also what has happened in Europe, in Turkey, and elsewhere — I have a sneaking suspicion Wilders was right when he said that there may well be such a thing as moderate Muslim but, alas, there is not such thing as moderate Islam. Which is one reason the advice “never deny” should be regarded as one regards Admiral Sir Joseph Porter’s declarations of denial in HMS Pinafore. “What, never?”