I was sitting in the airport and struck up a conversation with an interesting fellow, headmaster of a boy’s high school. He asked me what I do, and I replied that I was trained as a medievalist, working on the 21st century manifestations of medieval phenomena. “Oh, you mean like George Bush?” he shot back without missing a beat (i.e., pausing to think). “No, precisely not George Bush. No medieval ruler would tolerate a fraction of the criticism that Bush puts up with every day,” I replied, thinking of the last (very funny) John Stewart and Colbert shows I’d just seen.
I couldn’t help thinking of that episode while reading Ian Buruma’s latest effort to figure out what’s up with such issues as Eurabia, the term “Islamofascism,” and the neo-con Jews’ support of US intervention in the Arab world. Buruma has a reputation as a serious thinker, and his book on his native Holland — where he no longer lives — tackles the problem of Islamism in Europe. And yet in this essay he demonstrates a remarkably shallow ability to think historically, and an equally remarkable tendency to polemicize against the poor, Holocaust-deranged, Jewish neo-cons. The result: pseudo-serenity, pseudo-empathy, pseud0-historical reasoning. Caveat lector. (Hat tip: James Wald)
Ian Buruma’s most recent book is Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.” He is a professor of human rights at Bard College.
Embracing the empire
By Ian Buruma
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. 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.
One may or may not agree with Kouchner’s policies, but his motives are surely impeccable. 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.
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.
Woah. Down boy. If the term were Islamo-nazism, you might have a case. But to conflate fascism with Nazism, and to present the coining of the term as a strategy to paint “a big part of the Islamic world” as a “natural extension of Nazism” demonstrates an intellectual sloppiness fairly close to smear tactics. I for one, agree with Paul Berman, the parallels are both historical (e.g., the Muslim Brotherhood and original Fascism in the 1920s and 30s) and substantive. To “win over” the reader with this brief etymology of the term is something only a bit short of intellectual dishonesty.
As for the attempt to discredit the term by dismissing the link between Hussein and Ahmadenijad, it is again sloppy. Fascism saw lots of different forms. Mussolini’s national fascism was not much like Hitler’s millennial plans for world conquest. Note, then, how we have the same slip and slide to Nazism from fascism: since Saddam was not an Islamist, and Ahmadenijad is, then somehow the “right” is ridiculous for suggesting that they’re both heirs to Hitler. (Saddam’s real hero was Stalin.) Having made the position look intellectually ridiculous, he then throws Eurabia into the mix of absurd concerns.
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.
This is historical reasoning? Analogies with the Third Reich — fascism makes parallels with many more cases than just the Nazis, so this itself is a kind of reductio ab absurdum — are dismissed as false on the basis of a disparity of power. In other words, they can’t be like the Nazis, because they’re not as powerful. (Note the role of conflating Fascism with Nazism: Mussolini had no intention of conquering Europe — fascism does not have world conquest written into the ideology.) With Buruma’s power-differential logic, Islamists can have similar millennial goals of world conquest, spread similar paranoid fantasies, develop similar cults of death and murder, but as long as they are not as powerful as the Nazis, then the analogy is false. Help me here. Did Hitler have the atomic bomb?
Moreover, Buruma compares Nazis at the height of their power (1939-42) with Islamist Jihad in its early stages. In the early 1920s, Hitler was a bufoon, and few took him seriously. And it took a lot of time and European appeasement to allow the joker to become a powerful madman. As for Islamic armies not about to invade Europe, the modern world is a global community, and Islamic armies are active all over that globe. To reduce the threat of Islamofascism to Europe to a formal invasion of Europe, and then dismiss the problem because that’s not on the horizon, suggests a remarkable lack of historical imagination.
The refusal of many Muslims to integrate into Western societies, as well as high levels of unemployment and ready access to revolutionary propaganda, can easily explode in acts of violence. But the prospect of an “Islamized” Europe is also remote. We are not living a replay of 1938.
Well thanks for the reassurance. What about a replay of 1925-35, as the movement gains momentum and arms while Western intellectuals refuse to take it seriously?
So why the high alarm about European appeasement, especially among the neoconservatives? Why the easy equation of Islamism with Nazism?
That’s the equation of Islamism with Fascism, and it’s not “easy,” it’s extensive. Perfect illustration of the false problem he’s setting up. (One could ask the contrary: Why the easy equation of Fascism with Nazism?)
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.
Having started with a false dismissal of the problem (Islamism is not fascist, and Eurabia is a manufactured fear), we now seek for some ulterior motive for why this false problem has been posed. Note how Buruma’s prose turns wooden. “Israel is often mentioned as a reason.” Always beware passives (this essay is full of them); they disguise agency. Who often mentions Israel? The neo-cons, for whom the problem is real enough? Or the “progressives,” for whom there is no problem, and we must flush out the “real cause” of neo-con (false) alarm?
As for his list of “what Israel means” — the last one “a democratic oasis in a desert of tyrannies” — it should in principle be the meaning of Israel to liberals, but here it appears as that of “neoconservative ideologues.” Interesting. And what is Israel to “progressives”? — a colonialist racist state that threatens the whole world with its regressive nationalism?
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.
And not Europe?
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.
First throw out the smear — Israel is the cause of neo-con alarmism. (Shades of the unmentioned “progressive” meaning of Israel — our misfortune. Then take it back (partly). And now… let me guess, bring it back again in another more subtle form.
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.
The man’s shifts gears at a dizzying rate. From a concessive aside — well, maybe Ahmadenijad does sound a lot like Hitler — to the neo-con’s “remarkable, sometimes fawning trust in the US government to save the world by force…” Misplaced, maybe (although it might be worth a sentence to at least establish this — or does Buruma address an audience that already shares many presumptions?). But fawning? That’s a verb I’d more readily associate with someone like Jimmy Carter’s relationship to Islamo-facists.
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.
Presumably, Buruma here uses “revolution from above” to designate Bolshevism. And in one deft stroke, he then turns that into the functional equivalent of Bush’s (neo-con) domino theory of democracy in the Middle East. The legacy of authoritarian leftism does not manifest itself in today’s left’s admiration for Islamist death cults, but in neo-con foreign policy.
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. 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.
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. 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.
What a clever move. If you’re apocalyptic in your fears about Western civilization under threat to Islamofascism, then neo-con appreciation of American power makes sense. But if you understand how silly those fears, then that same neo-con move represents a betrayal by backing foolish military moves.
This strikes me as specious reasoning, and leads me to wonder what would lead the author of Murder in Amsterdam, noted for his subtle and deft handling of difficult problems, to turn into something of an intellectual mugger here on the pages of Ha-Aretz?
What I find most troubling about this line of reasoning — supremely self-confident dismissals of historical analogies, serene contempt for people sounding a warning about dangerous forces gathering strength, sloppy analyses of opponents’ unconscious motivations — is that it actually sets up a terrifying paradox. Precisely because the Holocaust happened, any effort to warn about it happening again becomes a distorted form of reasoning created by that experience. When Hitler rose to power, people like Churchill could not warn people because no one could imagine he’d be so evil. Now that everyone (imperfectly) knows Hitler’s story, any effort to warn about a similar tale taking shape becomes unreliable precisely because it reflects a pathology created by Hitler. Fear of the Holocaust moves people to see it everywhere; and hence, everywhere people see it coming again — even when it might be a serious issue — registers as paranoia, not reasonable concerns.
Buruma’s final antinomy — if these concerns were true, then support for US intervention might be reasonable, but if not, then it becomes a betrayal by the intellectuals of the people — is actually an interesting one. If Buruma were less fatuous in his confidence in a robust democratic future for Europe, he might take the two sides of the equation seriously. Instead, in a move repeatedly signaled throughout the essay by his sloppy and dismissive analysis, he clearly cannot imagine the tragic consequences that would result were he mistaken.
The final line — neo-con interventionism can “cost more lives than they were intended to save” — sums it up. When the West finally woke up to Hitler and moved to oppose him, it cost some 50 million lives. The longer the West waits to confront its Islamofascist enemies around the world, the higher the death toll, which, in our global theater with WMDs at play, means probably hundreds of millions. The death tolls in Iraq, as terrible as they may be, are nothing in comparison with what will come if we follow his confident advice.
Are we waking up yet? Apparently not Ian Buruma.
UPDATEEliyahu at his blog Emet m’Tsiyon extends this discussion further and documents it in several important ways.