Friday, September 15, 2006

TNR on "ism schism"

Peter Beinart has a piece online that delineates a lot of the confusion among the various "isms" floating about in public discourse.
"Islamofascism" has become widely popular on the right, which is ironic given that it was primarily designed to appeal to the left. When Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens popularized the concept, they were trying to prevent their fellow leftists from investing Osama bin Laden with anti-imperialist legitimacy. To the contrary, they argued, fighting Al Qaeda was part of the left's grand anti-fascist tradition. It was a noble effort, but there were problems. At its core, fascism involves worship of the nation. Bin Laden, however, isn't an ultra-nationalist; he's an ultra anti-nationalist. He sees Middle Eastern countries as insidious, Western impositions that must be abolished so Muslims can reunite under a theocratic caliphate. Berman and Hitchens also applied the epithet to Saddam Hussein, and here they were on stronger ground

My daughter is studying the subjects of democracy, fascism, totalitarian, and various tints and tones as these meld slightly into one another on a case-by-case basis. Beinart sees Al-Qaeda as a religion-based totalitarianism.
The more apt epithet for bin Laden is totalitarian. Hannah Arendt, totalitarian's foremost interpreter, insisted that totalitarianism and fascism were different. Totalitarians need not deify the nation: Hitler imagined a race-based utopia and Stalin imagined a class-based one. What linked them, in the philosopher Michael Walzer's words, was their "political messianism"--their vision of a perfect new world brought about through coercive state power. The perfection of the vision mandated the scope of the coercion: It had to be total. Most dictators merely try to control political behavior--behavior that threatens their hold on power. But, in a totalitarian state, all behavior is political because everyone must do their part to create a perfect world. In fascist Italy, the church remained largely autonomous. In a totalitarian state, however, you either actively participate in the ideological project or you are an enemy. Such a state, Arendt wrote, cannot permit "the autonomous existence of any activity whatsoever." It cannot even allow "the neutrality of chess."

For Al Qaeda, the utopia is religious. Bin Laden and his supporters call themselves salafis, from the word salaf, which refers to Mohammed's companions in the seventh century. And, since salafi society was perfect, recreating it requires total state control. A true Islamic state, wrote the influential salafist theoretician Maulana Maududi, must have a "sphere of activity [that] is co-extensive with human life. ...In such a state, no one can regard any field of his affairs as personal and private." Thus, the Taliban banned chess and virtually every game or hobby. Music, said the Taliban's education minister, "creates a strain in the mind and hampers study of Islam." In other words, it hinders the effort to create the pure Muslims required for a pure Islamic society.

So Islamic (or more precisely, salafi) totalitarianism is a good description of what bin Laden's followers believe. But Bush doesn't apply the term Islamofascist merely to followers of Al Qaeda; he applies it to the insurgents in Iraq and to the regime in Iran. And, in so doing, he destroys its clarity. The average Iraqi insurgent is not fighting to usher in a utopian vision of Islam; he is fighting because an American soldier killed his cousin or because Shia are stealing his country. America's enemy in Iraq includes totalitarians, but it is mostly nationalist and tribalist.

But Iran is the target numero uno of the neo-cons, and isn't this country evolving into a totalitarian religious regime?
Iran isn't really totalitarian either. Its hybrid political system is far from democratic (and has grown more oppressive in recent years) but still permits some public disagreement. Within limits, it allows people to differ about the definition of an Islamic state, something a totalitarian regime cannot allow. Iran has also proved half-hearted about regulating apolitical behavior--the kind that doesn't threaten the regime but impedes utopia. Ayatollah Khomeini refused to ban non-Islamic music, art, and, yes, chess. And, unlike the Taliban, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said he doesn't care how citizens cut their hair. Tehran's goal is less popular mobilization than popular indifference. As Boston University's H.E. Chehabi has put it, if the totalitarian state's motto is "those who are not for us are against us," Iran's motto is "those who are not against us are for us."

Beinart lets Iran and the new president off pretty easily, in my opinion, as press freedoms are evaporating the way political democracy did under Rafsanjani and his Ayatollah successor now gliding from Festschrift to Colloquium in the vapid delusionary Halls of Academicide. And where does Qaddafi's Green Book fit, or has he been judged to have recanted and is now in the Allied camp, whatever his idiosyncratic eccentricities?

My personal experience of living close to a decade in the Middle East leads me to wonder whether any hard and fast category fits the social and political anarchy bubbling just below the surface. Who was it recently that said "we have pitched our flag atop a political volcano?"

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