Monday, June 11, 2007

quackquack Islamofascism quackquack

“WHEN I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less,” says Humpty Dumpty to Alice during her adventure in Wonderland.

And as we know, Wonderland is a topsy-turvy universe in large measure because, stripped of commonly accepted definitions, words are bereft of meaning.

The “war on terror” has become a linguistic Wonderland: the USA Patriot Act supposedly protects us by gutting the Fourth Amendment’s protections against warrantless searches and seizures, and President Bush, inflating his nominal title as commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces, has unilaterally commandeered authority to intercept domestic telephone and e-mail messages without court orders. And the list of violations of our Constitutional rights and freedoms goes on, explained away in a fog of vague excuses invoking “national security.”

Make no mistake: People are trying to kill us simply because we are Americans and Jews. These are equal-opportunity murderers and their threat is real.

Still, understanding the threat and counteracting it effectively require clear thinking. But like all wars the “war on terror” has bred hysteria. Emotion has taken over, pundits now traffic in sound bites, and clear thought is suspect in many quarters as evidence of “softness” or, worse, “material aid” to the “enemy.”

Take, for example, the notion of “Islamo-fascism.”

President Bush has been trotting out the term for nearly two years now to bolster support for his “war on terror.” In October 2005 he described “Islamo-fascism” to the National Endowment for Democracy as “a clear and focused ideology, a set of beliefs and goals that are evil, but not insane… [T]his ideology is very different from the religion of Islam.”

A few months later, in March 2006, he described America’s continued military action in Iraq as a theater in his “war on terror,” declaring: “There’s no question that if we were to prematurely withdraw and the march to democracy were to fail, the [sic] al Qaeda would be emboldened; terrorist groups would be emboldened; the Islamo-fascists would be emboldened.”

Not surprisingly, partisans of the president’s “war on terror” have wholeheartedly embraced the term. Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who served as chair of the Senate’s Republican Conference, is one. In July 2006, he invoked “Islamic fascism” — a variant — no less than twenty times during a widely reported address to Washington’s National Press Club.

“Islamic fascism is the greatest test of this generation,” he exclaimed, identifying it as the motive force behind Iraq’s insurgency, Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, Hezbollah’s and Hamas’ missile attacks on Israel, 9/11, the terrorist bombing in Bali, Osama bin Laden, and al Qaeda. He also cited it as justification for renewal of the Patriot Act and the president’s authority to eavesdrop on domestic telephone conversations without judicial approval or oversight.

* * *

RIGHT-WING talk-radio info-tainers and Fox News bloviators, along with countless “get-me-rewrite” bloggers, have picked up the term, lending credence to the notion that the right somehow owns or can claim paternity to the concept of “Islamic fascism.” It is the sort of verbal jujitsu associated with partisan spinmeisters such as Karl Rove, skilled at adopting a word or phrase previously common in left-liberal discourse and turning it around to disparage any criticism of the right’s agenda.

Credit for coining the term has been variously attributed to European scholars Malise Ruthven and Maxime Rodinson, and, most recently, been claimed by a convert to Islam named Stephen Schwartz. But its entry into American political discourse rests with a small set of public intellectuals known as “liberal hawks,” whose claim to media attention is their stance as left-wing critics of the left and who support the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a worthy attempt to liberate and bring democracy to the Middle East and the Arab/Muslim world.

Moreover, the most prominent among them have no difficulty identifying themselves as Jews and with Israel, or with the assertion that Israel is an outpost of Western values in a Muslim region and that its defense is tied with that of the West, now under assault by totalitarian forces inspired by an Islamic worldview.

Christopher Hitchens appears to have been among the first to brandish the term. In “Against Rationalization,” an essay published in The Nation three weeks after the attack on New York’s World Trade Center, he declared that “the bombers of Manhattan represent fascism with an Islamic face, and there’s no point in any euphemism about it.”

A talented polemicist who knows better than to linger too long lest he lose his readers’ attention, Hitchens avoided defining ways in which the perpetrators of 9/11 were “fascists.” His closest approach to an explanation was negative, stating that the bombers and their ilk “abominate about ‘the West’” and that what “Western liberals … do like about it and must defend … [are] its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state.”

Whether Islam objects to these propositions is a matter of profound disagreement and debate within many segments of the Muslim world, but none of them is specifically, inherently or uniquely “fascist.”

* * *

AT about the same time that Hitchens’ piece was reaching newsstands, Paul Berman was completing an essay entitled “Terror and Liberalism” for The American Prospect, which describes itself as an “authoritative magazine of liberal ideas.” Far less a controversialist than Hitchens, Berman attempted to sketch a broader historical perspective within which to situate the challenge posed to the liberal West by the attack on the World Trade Center.

Liberalism, he wrote, is founded on the assumption that rationality, order and modernity provide the basis for developing the good society. But the conflicts of the twentieth century — two world wars and a cold war — demonstrated that not everyone agreed with this vision. Powerful antiliberal movements on both the left and the right — communism in Russia, Nazism in Germany, fascism in Italy, and “the Spanish crusade to re-establish the Reign of Christ the King” — had arisen to contest liberalism’s assumptions. Each of these movements had aimed to establish “a new society purged of alien elements — a healthy society no longer subject to the vibrations of change and evolution, a society with a single blocklike structure, solid and eternal.”

Berman’s essay was to serve as the basis for a greatly expanded inquiry, published two years later under the same title. There was, however, a significant difference: The essay was cautious about attributing any direct link between the ideology presumed to have motivated the 9/11 attackers and Western antiliberal movements. “The present conflict,” he wrote there, “seems to me to be following the twentieth-century pattern exactly, with one variation: The antiliberal side right now, instead of Communist, Nazi, Catholic, or Fascist, happens to be radical Arab nationalist and Islamic fundamentalist.” Fascism was listed only in order to be excluded.

In its book-length iteration, however, fascism reappeared as a source in the formation of contemporary Islamic fundamentalist thought. During the course of two early chapters, followed by frequent references throughout the remainder of the book, Berman describes the intellectual world of Sayyid Qutb, whose works he believes provide much of the ideological foundation for the current Islamic challenge to Western liberal society. Until Berman’s book appeared, Qutb was an obscure figure in the West, and it is fair to say that most post-9/11 Western commentaries about Qutb’s role in shaping radical strands of Islamic thought owe a debt to Berman’s analysis.

Qutb was born in Egypt in 1906. He received a classical religious education and later began a career with the Ministry of Education. During 1948-1950 he studied at a teacher’s college in Colorado, where he earned a master’s degree and apparently developed a dim view of American society, especially its secularism. After returning to his homeland in 1951, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, became its leading theoretician and served as editor of its official journal.

In those roles, he elaborated a vision of an Islam that stood in opposition to Western liberal values. Most of his writing was done in prison. In 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser staged a military coup, which the Brotherhood supported. Two years later Nasser turned against the organization and banned it. Qutb was imprisoned and except for two brief respites remained behind bars for the next twelve years. He was executed in 1966.

In Berman’s exegesis of what he had been able to read of Qutb’s works in translation, he notes that the only Western author quoted in Islam: The Religion of the Future is Alexis Carrel. (In fact, Qutb quoted Carrel in several other works Berman does not cite — one quotation extending for more than twelve pages.) Any number of commentators have latched onto this observation as evidence of a link between Islamic fundamentalism and fascism. But the connection collapses upon examination.

Alexis Carrel is perhaps only a shade less obscure than Qutb in twentieth-century intellectual and political history. Born in France in 1873, he earned a medical degree and settled in the United States in 1905 to work at the Rockefeller Institute. There he developed a procedure to suture blood vessels, which earned him a Nobel prize in medicine in 1912. He also developed with Charles Lindbergh — the Charles Lindbergh, of trans-Atlantic flight fame and America First notoriety — an early prototype of a mechanical artificial heart.

In 1935, with the publication of his book, Man, This Unknown, Carrel emerged as an advocate of eugenics and state-sanctioned euthanasia by means of poison gas. He returned to France in 1939, and joined the PPF, an extreme right-wing political party led by Jacques Doriot, a former communist. Following France’s defeat and occupation by the Germans in 1940, the Vichy regime appointed Carrel regent of a well-funded French Foundation for the Study of Human Problems, which focused on demographics, nutrition and public opinion polling. (A number of postwar scholars assert that the foundation put Carrel’s theories of eugenics into practice, resulting in the of deaths of thousands of mentally ill patients during the war years.) After France’s liberation in 1944, Carrel was placed under investigation as a collaborationist, but died in November, before he could be brought to trial.

Such sensational details as captured in even this brief outline of Carrel’s career appear even more so when his name is coupled to Qutb’s to link Islamic fundamentalism with European fascist thought. The problem, however, is that none of the passages Qutb quotes from Carrel’s Man, This Unknown have any connection to eugenics, euthanasia or mass murder. Indeed, most consist of vague, rather gaseous speculations about the inability of science to explain human nature and about the disintegrating effects of materialism on the human spirit — the sort of speculations found in the writings of all of the world’s major religions. Indeed, Berman notes that what Qutb seems to have found of interest in Carrel was “his condemnation of modern materialism … and not Carrel’s … proposed scientific solutions.” Berman continues:

The racist parties and movements that had arisen in the twentieth century — “all nationalistic and chauvinistic ideologies which have appeared in modern times, and all the movements and theories which have derived from them” — had been proven wrong. They had “lost their vitality.”

Moreover, Carrel’s influence on Qutb’s thought appears to have been, at best, highly selective and idiosyncratic on Qutb’s part since Carrel, a devout Roman Catholic, made only one reference to Islam in Man, This Unknown, and that was to remark that Western Christian civilization had, “[a]t the cost of immense efforts … succeeded in thrusting back the sleep of Islamism.”

And yet the equations of Qutb and Carrel, Islamic fundamentalism and fascism continue to be made.

* * *

GEORGE Orwell knew more about facism than most political writers of his generation, having taken up arms against it during the Spanish civil war where he received a bullet through his throat while standing guard duty with a Republican army detachment. But in 1944, while the Allies were still confronting the threat posed by Hitler and Mussolini (though not Franco, who kept Spain neutral in the fight against his sponsors), Orwell concluded that the term “fascism” had lost any useful semblance of meaning.

“I have heard it applied,” he wrote in the Independent Labour Party’s newspaper Tribune,

to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, [J.B.] Priestley’s broadcasts [over the BBC], Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else … All we can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.

Six years later, racing against the tuberculosis that would finally kill him, Orwell completed his masterwork, Nineteen Eighty-four, the novel in which he summarized everything he believed he had learned about the antiliberal passions of his age. In an early chapter his hero, Winston Smith, is sitting in a Ministry of Truth cafeteria, drinking a mug of coffee:

At the table to his left the man with the strident voice was talking remorselessly away…. It was just a noise, a quack-quack-quacking … It was not the man’s brain that was speaking, it was his larynx. The stuff coming out of him consisted of words, but it was not speech in the true sense; it was noise uttered in unconsciousness, like the quacking of a duck.

A colleague then informs Smith that there’s a term for such noise in the language invented by the totalitarian regime under which they live, a language designed to limit the capacity to think clearly (and to rise up in revolt) by constricting the vocabulary available for thought: “ ‘There’s a word in Newspeak,’ said Syme, ‘I don’t know whether you know it: duckspeak, to quack like a duck.’ ” Syme then explains that “duckspeak” has two opposite meanings: “ ‘Applied to an opponent, it is abuse; applied to someone you agree with, it is praise.’ ”

The term “Islamo-fascism” is duckspeak, a mindless epithet, useless as an analytical tool and, worse, profoundly dysfunctional for mounting an effective defense of Western liberal society and its values against the onslaught of religious fundamentalism.

Paul Berman had it right in his first draft of Terror and Liberalism: The challenge may take political form, but its energy and inspiration are religious. Long before there was fascism or communism or the concept of totalitarianism, religion provided the wellspring for the impulse to establish “a blocklike, unchanging society, freed of inner corruption.”

With God on their side, Joshua conquered Canaan, Torquemada secured Iberia for Roman Catholic Christianity, Puritan divines expelled Quakers and hanged those who would not leave the Plymouth Bay colony. In our own day, George W. Bush plays to his religiously-inspired political base and vetoes funding of stem cell research on grounds that such scientific inquiry offends a particular theological interpretation as to whether a pinhead-sized cluster of embryonic cells floating in a Petri dish constitutes human life.

Liberals betray weakness in the face of fundamentalist challenges partly because they tend to view most matters effecting society through a political screen. Liberals are further weakened because most are uncomfortable and unconversant with religious terminology and frameworks — their own as well as others’. Ever since Voltaire launched his battle cry “Écrasez l’infâme!” liberals have been more comfortable marshaling political power to circumscribe and marginalize the role of religion per se in public life rather than engaging and empowering religious ideas, spokesmen and institutions that are fully supportive of rationality, order and modernity as the basis upon which to build a pluralist, tolerant, thriving — and dare we say, secular — society.

Hebrew scripture describes Joshua’s conquest of Canaan and there are a great number of Jews in modern Israel who invoke his warrior model when continuing to demand that not one square inch of the West Bank be relinquished to Palestinians, even were such reversion be accompanied with ironclad guarantees of peace. They derive their justification from a fundamentalist reading of scripture, positing “It says right here that God gave it to us. It’s ours — forever — and it is a sin to give it up!”

But this is a minority view among both the world’s — and even Israel’s — Jews. Fundamentalism may hold the levers of power in Israel regarding determinations as to what constitutes officially recognized Jewish religious practice; but, again, the majority of Israel’s Jews, as well as those in the United States, tacitly or explicitly accept the Enlightenment’s proposition that there is no inherent conflict between reason and religion, and every day they demonstrate their adherence to that proposition by following the dictates of their consciences in all manner of ethical decisions.

The same is true with respect to matters of peace with the Palestinians: Until Hamas and Hezbollah started lobbing rockets into Sderot and Kiryat Shmona, a majority of Israelis agreed with their government’s proposals to withdraw troops and settlers from all of Gaza and most of the West Bank. It took nearly forty years, but liberal rationalism — in the form of enlightened Judaism’s vision of shalom as their faith’s highest ethical value — prevailed among a majority of Israel’s Jews, and Jewish fundamentalism’s warrior caste was defeated.

There are voices, too, among Muslims and Islamic scholars — Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Mosque of Paris and president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith; Shirin Ebadi, Iran’s first female judge and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, and Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, who instituted sweeping family legislation that protects the rights of his nation’s women — who have no fundamental quarrel with Western liberal values, and who need and ought to be encouraged to take forceful stands against their fundamentalists.

President Bush has occasionally observed from his bully pulpit that it is not Islam that is the West’s enemy. But quacking about “Islamo-fascism” — tarring an entire faith with an epithet that has no discernible analytical meaning — defeats his, and liberal society’s, purposes. Not that the president or Fox News’ bloviators much care about liberal society — which is why the liberal hawks’ use of the term is doubly damning, and why members of a faith who know what happens when phrases like “Judeo-Bolshevism” get tossed around should know better than to engage in “duckspeak.”

Adam Simms

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