Alongside the debate among foreign-policy analysts about a “post-Western world” that I discussed in a recent post, there has also been another, oddly disconnected debate about the future of the West as a normative project that, particularly since 9/11, has been dominated by two opposing groups. On one side of the argument are anti-imperialists, who see the relationship between the West and the rest of the world predominantly in terms of the concept of empire and are therefore critical of Western policy and even of the concept of the West. On the other side of the argument are what might be called “Enlightenment fundamentalists” (the term comes from Timothy Garton Ash, who, in an article in the New York Review of Books in 2006, described the Dutch-Somali writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a “brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist”), who attempt to defend the values of the West, which they see as being under threat.
I received a scathing response to my recent review in the TLS of Jeffrey Herf’s book Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World from Tarif Khalidi, a professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the American University in Beirut. In a somewhat caustic letter to the editor, Khalidi questions whether, as someone who is a not a specialist on the Arab world, I was qualified to review the book and even whether Herf, a professor of European history at the University of Maryland, was qualified to write it. “The Arab/Islamic world is currently the last region on earth where non-experts can freely claim scholarly authority,” Khalidi writes. He also rejects the idea that Herf’s book, a study of the Nazis’ attempts to reach out to Muslims during World War II (which he appears not to have read), might be important for the debate about “Islamofascism”. Finally he says that my review “merely echo[es] tired and tiresome Israeli propaganda”.
I’ve just finished reading Paul Berman’s brilliant new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, which came out in April. Based on a 28,000-word essay that appeared in The New Republic in 2007, it’s a devastating critique of the Swiss Islamic philosopher Tariq Ramadan but also of liberal intellectuals like Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash who, Berman argues, have wrongly seen Ramadan as a “progressive”. In the preface, Berman says he sees Ramadan – the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood – as “a representative man of our age” on whom “half a dozen major conflicts and controversies converge”. The failure of writers such as Buruma to take him on is therefore for Berman a symptom of a bigger problem. The book thus develops the arguments Berman made in Terror and Liberalism about the recent failure of western liberals to recognise Islamism as a totalitarian movement and to confront it as they confronted other totalitarian movements in the twentieth century.
I’ve recently been wondering whether and how one can apply lessons from history, particularly twentieth-century European history, to the problems of the present without at the same time “instrumentalizing” the past. Particularly controversial in this respect is the term “Islamofascism”, which President Bush used to justify the “war on terror”. The term is actually doubly problematic: not only does it apply a concept that originated in the thirties and forties to movements in the present day; it also applies a term originally used to apply to a European phenomenon to movements in the Middle East. Like many people, I was pretty sceptical of the term, which seemed simplistic and ahistorical. But recently I’ve been thinking again. This post is not meant to be a defence of “Islamofascism”. However, I do wonder whether behind the term there is an important point: that Islamism, as a movement, has been influenced to a striking extent by ideas from European fascism.