The Crisis, and the Liberal Intolerants

In the last few days it’s come home to me (a little late!) that we are in a deepening crisis. Have to hand it to you left wing alarmists, you were way ahead of me. My late wake-up call was Seymour Hersh’s reporting on the Nuke-Iran option, followed by Larry Wilkerson’s comment at the Middle East Institute that Cheney is a straight-up “paranoid.” Both men are saying the same thing, and though Hersh is in some ways unreliable (due to an egomaniacal lack of proportion), his political values are unimpeachable. Wilkerson’s temperament is much the other way, judicious. But the bottom line: Our leaders lost their minds…

Please, somebody—impeach Bush now. Or when will some Republican, any Republican, show some spine and finally join the Murtha team? (Lindsey Graham where are you!)

But on to ideas. At the Middle East Institute Wednesday, Wilkerson said, Where is the Martin Luther of the Islamic world? To initiate their reform. This is now a cliche, but a true one: Islam needs reform. I was in Syria in January, and I can tell you that, notwithstanding all the pleasures of the place and the grace of the ordinary people, the Arab world suffers from an absence of free speech and the absence of women from public spaces, at cinemas, say, or a New Year’s party I attended. This is a tremendous problem that affects all of us, and yes, radical Islam has its knife at the throat of the secular Syrian government. A knife made much larger by our disastrous intervention in Iraq.

That sickness in Islam is echoed, though, by our nationalistic militarism. The belief that the only response to Islam is an aggressive one has only empowered the radical Islamists. And intellectuals deserve much of the blame. In an important forum on Slate a year or so back, Thomas Friedman showed his true colors, writing that suicide bombers in Israeli pizza parlors had left him feeling we had to invade Iraq.

This [terrorist] bubble had to be burst, and the only way to do it was to go right into the heart of the Arab world and smash something–to let everyone know that we, too, are ready to fight and die to preserve our open society.

Bernard Lewis, the orientalist scholar at Princeton, is of the same school. He was reported by The New Yorker to have had great influence on Cheney (my link is to
Nero Fiddled )

“Scowcroft suggested that the White House was taking the wrong advice, and listening to a severely limited circle. He singled out the Princeton Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, who was consulted by Vice-President Cheney and others after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Lewis, Scowcroft said, fed a feeling in the White Hoyse that the United States must assert itself. ‘It’s that idea that we’ve got to hit somebody hard,’ Scowcroft said. ‘And Bernard Lewis says, “I believe that one of the things you’ve got to do to Arabs is hit them between the eyes with a big stick. They respect power.”‘ Cheney, in particular, Scowcroft thinks, accepted Lewis’s view of Middle East politics.’”

These people are not thinking. They are reacting. They are, quite simply, hysterical.

To this group should be added Sam Harris, the bestselling author of The End of Faith This book, celebrated by the liberal Establishment, is on the one hand intelligent and on the other narrow. (Its narrowness absolutely reflects Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which in anatomizing the Holocaust only once or twice mentioned the extermination of Gypsies. Gypsies just didn’t count for Goldhagen. You cannot be a humanist purporting to explain the racist ideologies behind one of the most grievous atrocities in history and leave out one tribe of victims of those atrocities.)

Harris is the young version of Bernard Lewis. He has liberal patina, and believes that Islam is inscribed top to bottom with violent Jihad. Obviously there is some truth in what he says. But the complacency in Harris’s work is that he claims to be showing the problems with all religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and how they are all unfit for a modern world, but leaves Judaism completely off the hook.

Let me specific. Harris quotes Lewis positively: “for Muslims, no piece of land once added to the realm of Islam can ever be finally renounced.” Scary, yes. But meanwhile the book trivializes when it does not ignore that aspect of Jewish tribal culture that clings to the same scary principle, the idea that biblical claims to the West Bank somehow justify the colonization of that territory by modern zealots. This is a dangerous idea, patently: it is a central element in “settlement” of the West Bank and has justifiably angered the Muslim world.

But we don’t seem to be able to talk about it, in the parlors of policymaking. Ideas really are important. Until we look at the clash of cultures in a fair way, and see our own blindnesses, until the Wilkersons break through, this crisis will only deepen.