Events

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Islamism, the Betrayal of the Left, and Prospects for Real Coalition-Building and Peace-Work


One of the peculiarities of the contemporary Middle East conflict has been the historically unprecedented willingness of the putative "left" or "progressive" community to make common cause with or condone the behavior of extremist—notably: reactionary, clerical-obscurantist, even terrorist—organizations with whom they have nothing in common and would under any other circumstances have no truck.  Indeed, only the shared visceral opposition to Israel seems capable of generating this sort of cognitive dissonance.

Almost half a decade ago now, the late, brilliant independent leftist Fred Halliday (1, 2, 3, 4warned his erstwhile comrades against the naive belief that radical Islamism represented "a new form of international anti-imperialism that matches – even completes – their own historic project." To see in it only "a movement aimed against 'the West'," he insisted, is inadvertently to recapitulate the argument of "the imperialist right" and willfully or otherwise ignore that "long before the Muslim Brotherhood, the jihadis and other Islamic militants were attacking 'imperialism,' they were attacking and killing the left - and acting across Asia and Africa as the accomplices of the west." (Not the kind of argument you will hear in the "mainstream media"—or even in most leftist discourse, for that matter.)

He further urged a cold, hard look at Islamist social and cultural policy:
The reactionary (the word is used advisedly) nature of much of their programme on women, free speech, the rights of gays and other minorities is evident.

There is also a mindset of anti-Jewish prejudice that is riven with racism and religious obscurantism. . . . Here it is worth recalling the saying of the German socialist leader Bebel, that anti-semitism is “the socialism of fools”. How many on the left are tolerant if not actively complicit in this foolery today is a painful question to ask.
Rejecting the application of the label, "fascist," as inappropriate, he concluded,
It does not need slogans to understand that the Islamist programme, ideology and record are diametrically opposed to the left – that is, the left that has existed on the principles founded on and descended from classical socialism, the Enlightenment, the values of the revolutions of 1798 and 1848, and generations of experience. The modern embodiments of this left have no need of the “false consciousness” that drives so many so-called leftists into the arms of jihadis.
In a similarly complex and textured analysis, Dave Rich now takes up the question in the context of the recent flotilla incident.  In essence, he shows how a desperate and directionless European left, accustomed to subordinating itself to its new Islamist partners at home, unwittingly repeated the mistake at sea, with graver consequences.

He doesn't make casual accusations or carelessly fling epithets. Indeed, he avers, "It is unfair, and inaccurate, to label the leftist participants as useful idiots. Their reasons for action are genuine and their humanitarian efforts at least have political coherence." Instead, he concludes by asking, in the most sober terms, who is controlling whom, and who, if anyone, gained?  In a nutshell, he argues that the leftists and violent radical Islamists on the flotilla both had humanitarian and political goals but that these differed significantly in substance, and each moreover viewed the enterprise through entirely different lenses:
Islamism, globally, is a movement with energy, resources, self-belief and, in some countries, real power. Socialism is anything but. It has failed in power and lost its ideological certitude a long time ago, to be replaced by a vague and, at times, contradictory, set of ideas: anti-globalisation, environmentalism, anti-imperialism and so on. This is not an alliance of equals. European leftists, so used to being the junior partner in their cooperation with Islamists at home, have given up any pretence that their support for Hamas and other Islamist movements is one of critical engagement, or that they would rather work with secular, liberal forces in Palestinian society (or even their own). In this respect, the flotilla is a metaphor for the whole left-Islamist alliance. A journey over which leftists have a semblance of influence but little real control, into a confrontation not of their own making, from which they derive no political benefit.
Meanwhile, Benjamin Weinthal, writing in Gay City News, asks why elements of the LGBT movement have suddenly fallen prey to boycotts of Israel, a nation that, whatever its failings, is the only one in the Middle East to guarantee gay rights (indeed, in many ways, to a greater extent than does the United States).  In particular, he castigated philosopher Judith Butler's assertion that radical Islamists "could be described as left,” and thus worthy of sympathy.  Referring to recent controversies over events in Berlin, he cited "a blistering critique—“In bed with Hezbollah”—by Jan Feddersen, a gay German editor of the major left-wing newspaper TAZ:
“That Butler gives a thumbs-up to the concept of narrow self-righteousness is actually consistent,” Feddersen wrote. “She who cannot and will not think in civil rights categories favors, in a global perspective, alliances in which homosexuals cannot be interested. Hezbollah and Hamas, she recently decreed in a speech, should be positively rated from the leftist perspective [as] organizations that fight misery and poverty and oppose what she sees as the Zionist impertinence called Israel.“
Some of my well-informed and thoughtful friends on the left and in the gay movement found the critique of Butler overly harsh or lacking in nuance:  She and like-minded activists are well aware of the relatively pro-gay conditions in Israel, they say, but do not see this as reason to withhold criticism of other policies that they regard as deserving of censure.  They also are, obviously, aware of the shortcomings of the Islamists in sexual and gender politics, I am told, reassuringly.  Fair enough.  I don't think any reasonable person would deny or assume that these hypereducated people do not know this.  But to pose that defense, I think, is to beg the question.  The real question (and here is the connection to Halliday and Rich) is not: Does the progressive character of one policy of a country inoculate it against criticism of it on the basis of others? Of course not.  Please.  The critics are not so obtuse, either.  Rather, the question should be the one that I posed at the outset:  Just how many sins are we willing to overlook in order to conclude that it is worth allying ourselves—on the traditional logic that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," or in pseudo-Marxist terms, because it plays a "subjectively progressive" role—with a group that is otherwise inimical to our ideals and objective interests?  And to what extent do we morally compromise ourselves and become complicit in the crimes of these organizations if we do so? 

As noted, Fred Halliday, like many others in academe and on the left, was reluctant to apply the term, "fascism," to the Islamist movement, but on rigorous historical and intellectual grounds, and not simply, like the shallow majority left, because the Bush administration and other casual thinkers on the right had so passionately embraced it.

My fellow historian Jeffrey Herf is one who has had no such reluctance.  For several years now, he has sought to make a  case for the "fascist" nature of Islamism on the basis of its intellectual antecedents and concrete policies. Although rigorously argued, this has tended to be a minority view.  A turning point of sorts occurred when political scientist and German Green politician Matthias Küntzel, stunned by the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and the Hamburg connections of the hijackers, pursued the origins of the event and indeed found them in Germany—but the Germany of the 1930s as much as the 1990s.  He published the results as Djihad und Judenhass:  Über den neuen antijüdischen Krieg (Jihad and Jew-Hatred: On the New Anti-Jewish War; 2002); in English as  Jihad and Jew-Hatred: Islamism, Nazism and the Roots of 9/11 (Telos Press, 2007).  In his preface, Herf praised the book for showing how, following the defeat of Nazism, Islamism in effect assumed its mantle as the next "important political and ideological movement in world politics to place hatred of the Jews at the center of its ideology," thereby also forcing us "to rethink the issue of continuity and break before and after 1945 and expand our horizons beyond Europe to encompass the trans-national diffusion and impact of Nazism and fascism on the Arab and Islamic world."  It is precisely to these latter questions that Herf has now turned, with with pioneering empirical research into the causal connections between Nazism and Islamist antisemitism.

The not necessarily productive debate over Arab and Islamic complicity in the Holocaust has flared up again (e.g. 1, 2). Without delving into that whole topic, and to oversimplify: One view stresses the well-known collaboration of key Arab figures with the Nazi regime (from a Sadat for pragmatic reasons, to the Grand Mufti on grounds of ideological affinity). The other insists that the Arabs by and large remained immune to Nazism.  Each side can also point to evidence drawn from the behavior of ordinary people toward the Jews:  for example, the "Farhud," or pogrom against Iraqi Jews, on the one hand, or the increasingly well-documented efforts of Arab rescuers of Jews from the Holocaust (1, 2), on the other.  Herf addresses this historiographic problem in an interview with Viennese journalist and anti-fascist activist Karl Pfeifer concerning a recent conference on "Arab Responses to Fascism and Nazism."

His Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, based on an analysis of German wartime radio broadcasts to the Middle East, actually helps to loosen if not break the logjam. (One can find a précis of some of the book's arguments in his article in Central European History 42 (2009): 709-36.)  It is noteworthy that it finally persuaded Daniel Pipes—an arch-conservative and critic of Islamism, if ever there was one, but hitherto a sceptic—that the fascist connection was integral and not incidental or rhetorical.  As he explains:
After reading Küntzel and Herf, I realize that my education about the modern Middle East was lacking a vital ingredient, the Nazi one. . . . As page after page of Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World establishes in mind-numbing but necessary detail, the Germans above all pursued two themes: stopping Zionism and promoting Islamism. Each deserves close consideration.  
Nazi propaganda in Arabic portrayed World War II, history's largest and most destructive war, as focused primarily on the sliver of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. This interpretation both flattered Arabs and extended Hitler's grand theory that Jews wanted to take over the Arab countries and eventually the whole world, that the Allied powers were but pawns in this Zionist conspiracy, and that Germany was leading the resistance to them.

Palestine was the key, according to these broadcasts. If Zionists took it over, they would "control the three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. Thus they will be able to rule the whole world and spread Jewish capitalism." Such an eventuality would lead to Arabs oppressed and Islam defunct. "Should Bolshevism and Democracy be victorious," announced Nazi radio, "the Arabs will be dominated forever and all traces of Islam will be wiped out." To avoid this fate, Arabs had to join with the Axis.
Far from promoting antisemitism on "racial" grounds, which would have raised obvious problems among Arabs, the Nazis thus shrewdly justified their anti-Jewish policy on situationally appropriate religious and ethno-nationalist grounds. They took pains to anchor their antisemitism in the teachings of the Qur'an and Islam and in the language of the Arab revival and anti-imperialism (sound familiar?). In Pipes's words,
Ideas the Nazis spread in the Middle East have had an enduring twofold legacy. First, as in Europe, they built on existing prejudices against Jews to transform that prejudice into something far more paranoid, aggressive, and murderous. . . .

The fruits of this effort are seen not only in decades of furious Muslim anti-Zionism, personified by Arafat and Ahmadinejad, but also in the persecution of ancient Jewish communities in countries like Egypt and Iraq, which have now shriveled to near-extinction. . . .

Second, Islamism took on a Nazi quality. As someone who has criticized the term Islamofascism on the grounds that it gratuitously conflates two distinct phenomena, I have to report that Herf's evidence now leads me to acknowledge deep fascist influences on Islamism. This includes the Islamist hatred of democracy and liberalism and its contempt for multiple political parties, preference for unity over division, cult of youth and militarism, authoritarian moralism, cultural repression, and illiberal economics.

Beyond specifics, that influence extends to what Herf calls an "ability to introduce a radical message in ways that resonated with, yet deepened and radicalized, already existing sentiments."
To be sure, skeptics remain. In a debate in the Chronicle of Higher Education last fall, the otherwise generally intelligent and  well-informed Richard Wolin took Herf to task for purportedly concocting an intellectual history devoid of social context. Although Wolin seemed to direct his argument to issues central to the concerns of this blog—namely, the proper uses of history and analogy (especially where Nazism is concerned)—it soon became clear that his fear (or problem) was the conflation of Islam and Islamism. He objected to any association of Islam and fascism because that seemed to echo the disgraced vocabulary of the Bush administration and scurrilously implied "an integral relationship" between a historical political ideology and “one of the great religions of salvation”—a claim the book in fact never made. In ably defending himself, Herf clearly highlighted the real difference. Wolin asserted that Islamism was primarily a response to "the history and political experiences of the postwar Middle East."  In Herf's rather more nuanced view, by contrast, Islamism is neither a purely indigenous ideology arising from Islam itself nor a pure European import. “Rather, it emerged as the result of a conjuncture of fundamentalist currents within Islam and Nazi ideology and policy” and “was more cause than effect of the disasters of post-1945 Middle Eastern history.”

We seem to have come some distance from our original topic, yet these last issues are in fact intimately related to the earlier ones:  To point to these tainted origins of Islamism is not to indulge in accusations of guilt by association or inheritance. Rather, it is to cite one more reason for the most severe scrutiny of its contemporary manifestations.  There is simply too much here that should give western progressives pause.  There are far better ways to support Palestinian rights and peace and justice in the region as a whole than by "getting in bed with" the Islamists.

So, given this grim view of past, present, and future, why the flower at the top of the page?

Concerned by these developments and their deleterious influence on prospects for peace, labor leaders from the US, Europe, and Australia last year announced the formation of Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine, or TULIP,
a new global movement "to challenge the apologists for Hamas and Hizbollah in the labour movement" and to fight for a two-state solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
They explained:
The solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is clear – and has been accepted in principle by both sides. Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side, within secure and recognised borders, is the only workable solution to a conflict that has dragged on for decades. . . .

People of goodwill everywhere want a process to succeed delivering peace, justice and reconciliation. Trade unions can play a positive role here, and often do.
Among the practical aims of the organization are to:
Work together with Israeli and Palestinian trade unionists and associated NGOs to find ways to provide practical on-the-ground assistance — rather than empty slogans.
Words about real actions, rather than just more words:  words too rarely spoken.  Let a thousand TULIPs bloom.

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