Monday, August 01, 2005


In his need to continually beat his chest about something or other, Victor Hanson commits some seriously bad history:
Quite simply, Islam is not in need of a reformation, but of a civil war in the Middle East, since the jihadists cannot be reasoned with, only defeated. Only with their humiliation, will come a climate of tolerance and reform, when berated and beaten-down moderates can come out of the shadows.

Yes, let us openly wish for civil war. That way, we can declare Iraq to be a success. As for Hanson's "humiliate 'em" strategy, a sense of humiliation at the hands of an invasive West is widely acknowledged to be one of the roots of Islamic fundamentalist rage. Hanson's solution is to crank that humiliation up a few notches. Israel has been using this strategy against Hamas and other Palestinian Islamist groups since the first intifada in 1987, shall we consider how well it's served them? I'm not suggesting, as Hanson and his sort would probably insist I am, that militant fundamentalists just need a hug, but there is a difference between discrediting an ideology, which should be our project, and humiliating its adherents, which would likely produce more of the same.
The challenge for the Middle East is analogous to our own prior war with Hitler who sought to redefine Western culture along some racial notion of a pure Volk long ago unspoiled by Romanizing civilization. Proving the West was not about race or some notion of an ubermenschen ruling class did not require an “internal dialogue,” much less another religious reformation, but the complete annihilation of Nazism.

Can we go a day without somebody making this lazy, patently ridiculous analogy? We didn't go to war with Germany to disprove Nazi ideology, we went to war to defeat Nazi armies, which were, like, running all over the place with the tanks and the planes and the motorcycles with the sidecars and the Achtung! Al Qaeda fields no similar army, and represents an entirely dissimilar threat. They're waging a global insurgency and propaganda war, one they win simply by not losing. The global war on terror, err, the global struggle against violent extremism is a battle of ideas to a much greater extent than was the war against Hitler, and the prosecution of the one should and will be substantially different from the other. With the Bush administration trotting out a bevy of new slogans and essentially adopting John Kerry's strategy for combating violent extremism, Hanson would seem one of the few people who doesn't get this by now.
Contrary to popular opinion, there has not been a single standard doctrine of hatred in the Middle East. Radical Islam is just the most recent brand of many successive pathologies, not necessarily any more embraced by a billion people than Hitler’s Nazism was characteristic of the entire West.

In the 1940s the raging -ism in the Middle East was anti-Semitic secular fascism, copycatting Hitler and Mussolini — who seemed by 1942 ascendant and victorious.

Between the 1950s and 1970s Soviet-style atheistic Baathism and tribal Pan-Arabism were deemed the waves of the future and unstoppable.

By the 1980s Islamism was the new antidote for the old bacillus of failure and inadequacy.

Each time an -ism was defeated, it was only to be followed by another — as it always is in the absence of free markets and constitutional government.

Oy. Far from being an inheritor of Arab socialism and authoritarianism, as Hanson bafflingly claims, modern Islamic fundamentalism, which can be traced to Hassan al Banna's founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, in fact began as a reaction to, and has continued to function as a mode of resistance to, those imported secular ideologies. It's certainly not difficult to understand the initial appeal of al Banna's philosophy. For much of the Arab world, the experience of modernization has been of Western governments empowering small, unaccountable groups in their domination of crudely drawn Arab states in exchange for oil and other strategic concessions from the ruling clique. The Arab experience of secularism has been one in which the ulama was either co-opted or simply swept out of its traditional role as adjudicator, leaving no similar institution in its place to act as a check upon rulers who were then free to plunder and abuse as they would. And plunder and abuse they did.

So there's blame to go around for the bad ideas at work in the Middle East. Understanding the causes and dimensions of Islamic fundamentalism should obviously be part of any project aimed at reducing terrorism and increasing democracy in the region, but Hanson frankly doesn't seem interested in anything like this. His plan, which can be described as "give them a good, sound whupping and that'll learn 'em," is thuggish and unserious. It's true that there is a tiny number of extremists intent on causing great harm. Even if we could snap our fingers and make every one of these fanatics disappear in a puff of smoke, that would not end their war, as it would do nothing to diminish the appeal of their ideas.

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