Thursday, April 28, 2011

Islamic death cult

"The Children are the Holy Martyrs of Tomorrow."

[Hamas kindergarten motto]

Paul Berman's account of the Islamist movement and of the failure of Western intellectuals to come to terms with it [The flight of the intellectuals (Melville House, 2010)] makes depressing reading. The movement, which began as an attempt to rejuvenate Islam by returning to its early sources, developed mainly in Egypt in the 19th and early 20th century and crystallized in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and related groups in other countries.

Hassan al-Banna, founder (in 1928) of the Muslim Brotherhood, created "the original institutional model for what has come to be known as 'Islamism' - with the suffix 'ism' trailing after Islam to distinguish al-Banna's political and more-than-political twentieth century renewal movement from the ancient religion itself." (Berman, p. 33) Tariq Ramadan, al-Banna's Swiss-born grandson, has often defended the reform movement and Hassan al-Banna from accusations of indulging in or promoting violence. He has claimed that his grandfather was philosophically opposed to violence, and any violence perpetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood or its offshoots represented aberrations.

For example, Ramadan has admitted that al-Qaeda's history does trace back to the Muslim Brotherhood, but he has insisted that the violent elements within the Brotherhood from which al-Qaeda and other such groups derived were rogue elements associated with Sayyid Qubt rather than Hassan al-Banna.

It turns out, however, that Qubt was mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, and had close links with Tariq Ramadan's father, Said Ramadan, who - like Tariq - was a devoted follower of Hassan al-Banna.

Qubt was profoundly influenced in his youth by the Romantic movement, and wrote, in Berman's words, "strikingly original" commentaries on the Koran which were "drawn from the heart." The commentaries were published in a magazine edited by Said Ramadan, and formed the core of Qubt's "gigantic ... masterwork, In the Shade of the Qur'an - this mega-exegesis which, having emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood, has gone on to influence Islamist movements around the world, not just organizations like the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood but the Iranian revolution (in a Persian translation by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic) and the Afghani Islamists (in a Dari translation by Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former president of Afghanistan), even apart from al Qaeda." (Berman, p. 141)

What is particularly ironic is that this tradition of Islamic thought and action draws not just on Islamic, Arab and Middle Eastern roots, but also on Western notions such as fascism and socialism (Qubt in his youth had been a secular socialist) - and Romanticism.

The Romantic cult of death found a receptive audience in these 'reformers' of Islam. Qubt "pictured the entire world hurtling toward a catastrophic crisis, which he interpreted along paranoid and apocalyptic lines... [H]is vision of an Islamic vanguard establishing a revolutionary Islamic state somewhere on earth and using that one lonely outpost to export Islamic revolution to the rest of the Muslim world and then to everywhere else, his vision of the Koranic utopia to come, the resurrected Caliphate, and his dedication, meanwhile, to martyrdom - all of this was visibly extreme. His whole instinct was to take al-Banna's already pop-eyed Mussolinian idea about resurrecting the Islamic Empire and give it a desperado extra twist." (Berman, p.147)

Even without that extra twist, al-Banna's original ideas are quite bad enough. "Degradation and dishonor," wrote the revered founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, "are the results of the love of this world and the fear of death. Therefore prepare for jihad and be the lovers of death." (Cited Berman, p. 33)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Islamism and the extreme left

When Jules Monnerot was writing his Sociologie du communisme in the late 1940s (see 'Possessed by the truth'), and for some decades thereafter, the greatest threat to Western democracy and economic liberalism seemed to many to be Marxism-Leninism and the communist states which exemplified this ideology. Western radicals were generally committed to Marxism in one form or another, and many had links of a sentimental or more substantial nature with the Soviet Union or other communist states.

Monnerot, seeking to explain the appeal of this ideology, made historical comparisons with Islam. His polemical purpose was not to attack Islam, however, which seemed at the time to be a tradition in decline and primarily of historical interest, but rather to attack Marxism-Leninism.

It is something of an irony that, only a few decades after Monnerot wrote, the tables have turned and it is Marxism-Leninism which is now of historical interest, whereas political Islam - or Islamism - is ascendant once more. In geopolitical terms, the Cold War threat does seem to have been replaced by the Islamist threat, but ideologically the situation is not so simple. Leftist and anarchist groups - which still find inspiration in the writings of 19th and 20th-century radical thinkers - are flourishing, and occasionally join forces with the Islamists in seeking to undermine the status quo.

One thing that particularly interests me in Monnerot's analysis is the concept of subversion. The liberal elites in the West in the second half of the 20th century generally did not take the notion seriously, and made fun of (or demonized) those whose love of their country and/or their way of life led them to be deeply suspicious of those who sought to promote communist ideas or to engage in (or to protect those engaged in) the process of supplying sensitive information to foreign powers.

In Patricia Highsmith's novel, The tremor of forgery, set amongst American and European expatriates and tourists in Tunisia at the height of the Cold War, there is a character I quite warmed to who secretly recorded weekly talks promoting American values which were broadcast to the countries of Eastern Europe. He was a good-hearted and serious soul who was (predictably) patronized by the sophisticated American writer whom he befriended. The writer-character called him (but not to his face) OWL (for Our Way of Life).

OWL acts as a counterweight to the relativizing and amoral forces which dominate in this novel and typically dominate in Highsmith's fictional world. He represents a much-maligned tradition of boring and reassuring decency that I find very attractive - but such an attitude is usually tethered to an actual social order which supports it.

Socially, so much has changed, of course, since those times. America and other Western countries are scarcely recognizable. We don't seem to have the option of that simple patriotism any more. The new patriots are all too often loud and xenophobic, seeking to regain something that has been lost rather than - as in the past - simply being quietly proud of their country, its customs and its history.

Some might say, then, that there is nothing left to subvert. I disagree. Despite all the ugliness and dysfunctionality of Western societies at present, they still embody notions of decency and political and economic freedom. And those violent groups which join in street protests against austerity measures or who organize their own violent protests and attacks on property at various economic forums are clearly bent on attacking and undermining this system which still delivers - in varying degrees - freedom, prosperity and order.

Islamists of various kinds - from the openly violent to the ambiguously intellectual - have been and will remain in an uneasy relationship with the extreme left. Islamist ideologue Tariq Ramadan has expressed support for anti-globalization protests and many anarchists and leftists have seen in him and others like him useful allies.

As Paul Berman writes: "On the activist far left, some of the anti-globalist radicals and the die-hard enemies of McDonalds saw in Ramadan, because of his denunciations of American imperialism and Zionism and his plebian agitations, a tribune of progressive Islam, even if his religious severities grated on left-wing sensibilities." [The flight of the intellectuals (Melville House, 2010, p. 17)]

The recent killing of the Italian activist Vittorio Arrigoni is a tragic illustration of the paradoxes inherent in the de facto alliance between Islamist groups and the far left.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Gremlins of the blood

My father suffered a massive stroke, but made a remarkable recovery. Almost as remarkable was his dramatic dietary reformation, a sudden switch to a radically healthy diet: great bags of apples, raw carrots, yogurt ...

Over a period of time he regained his ability to speak and write, but his speech was slurred and error-prone in the early stages of recovery. Once, he referred to the oxygen-carrying blood protein as "hemagoblin". This term was subsequently pluralized by his children into a facetious explanation for any mysterious illness.

On another occasion, we were discussing a politician who, he said, "had a ball in both courts."

Monday, April 4, 2011

Possessed by the truth

During those decades of the 20th century when communist regimes in Russia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere seemed to be thriving, constituting sources of inspiration for Western leftists and prompting fear and loathing on the part of conservatives, communism was frequently compared with Islam.

For example, the French thinker Jules Monnerot made such a comparison in his Sociologie du communisme (1949).

A case can certainly be made that ideologies like Marxism-Leninism operate like religions, albeit without the supernatural dimension. In particular, there is a strong in-group/out-group dynamic and a sense that there is an essential truth at the heart of the ideology, the total acceptance of which is a prerequisite for being counted amongst the faithful.

But why single out Islam as a point of comparison - why not any religion? Basically because, like Marxism-Leninism, Islam has a detailed plan for a universal and supposedly egalitarian social order. Islam, writes Monnerot, "draws on resentments, and organizes and streamlines the impulses that set men against the societies in which they are born."

Just as, claims Monnerot, communists deployed an "historical myth" which was "apt to fanaticize men", so too did the Fatimids of Egypt and the Safavids of Persia.

For Monnerot, Stalin was like the Muslim "commander of the faithful". In communism, as in Islam, "the believer does not think of himself as a 'believer': he is in possession of the truth - or, better put, he takes the thing that possesses him for the truth. This truth inspires in him an active attachment that truth, in a scientific sense, doesn't inspire and never asks for."

Modernity is characterized by relatively autonomous spheres of activity and relatively autonomous institutions coexisting and creating a complex society in which there is space for individual privacy and freedom.

Communism, by contrast, is a "total social phenomenon" that breaks with the "autonomy of spheres of action" characteristic of modernity. And radical political Islam or Islamism may be characterized in a similar way.

Monnerot's mention of the "resentments" that Islam putatively draws on to feed subversive impulses recalls another (related) tradition of European social thought which associates populist radicalism with Jewish and Christian traditions. But that is another story ...