Whaling and shooting


“If you want to understand the RAF [Red Army Faction], you have to read Moby Dick”, Stefan Aust said in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that was published in 2007. Herman Melville’s great American novel was an important text for the West German terrorist group, about whom I write in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz. The members of the group seemed to have imagined themselves as the crew of the Pequod, the whaling ship in the novel – though it is not clear how many of them had actually read it apart from Gudrun Ensslin, who had studied German literature. It was Ensslin who came up with the idea of giving them codenames taken from characters in the novel, which they used in correspondence with each other while they were in prison in the early 1970s. Paraphrasing Andreas Baader, one might say they saw whaling and shooting as the same thing. But what exactly does reading Moby-Dick actually tell us about the RAF?

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Enlightenment and empire

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.

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The clash of intellectuals

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.

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Terrorism and time

When I was in Israel last year I met the writer Assaf Gavron, whose novel CrocAttack! is published in the UK by Fourth Estate this week. The novel – which Gavron wrote while he was living in London a few years ago – tells the story of a young Israeli working for a dot-com in Tel Aviv who keeps narrowly missing being killed in terrorist attacks during the second intifada. CrocAttack! is actually Gavron’s fourth novel but the first to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – which may be why it is also the first to have been translated into English. But actually, as I suggest in a post for the Prospect blog today, the most important and interesting theme in the novel is not terrorism but time. Gavron is now working on a novel about settlers and moved to Berlin three weeks ago. At a reading as part of Jewish Book Week in London last night, he was asked how he feels as an Israeli living in Berlin. “Most Israelis feel more more comfortable there than here,” he said.

Islamofascism redux

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.

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Thoughts on Israel

Post-Zionist graffiti
Originally uploaded by Hans Kundnani.

Since I visited Israel for the first time in April, I’ve been thinking a lot about where legitimate criticism of Israel ends and anti-Semitism begins. I’m currently reading an excellent German anthology (includes essays by Tony Judt, Jeffrey Herf, Gerd Koenen etc.) on the debate about whether there is such a thing as a “new anti-Semitism” (especially on the European left but also in the Islamic world). It’s a theme that also runs through my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, which tells the story of Germany’s 1968 generation. In fact, the book is among other things a case study of how one small group of people went from criticising Israeli policy to attacking Jews.

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