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The Age of the Zipped Lip

Paul Berman takes the thesis of his outstanding new book, The Flight of the Intellectuals, to the pages of the Wall Street Journal and dubs the age we live in that of the Zipped Lip.

“You are not,” he writes, “supposed to observe that Islamism is a modern, instead of an ancient, political tendency, which arose in a spirit of fraternal harmony with the fascists of Europe in the 1930s and ’40s. You are not supposed to point out that Nazi inspirations have visibly taken root among present-day Islamists, notably in regard to the demonic nature of Jewish conspiracies and the virtues of genocide.”

As he said to me on the phone when I interviewed him in May, the mere mention of Nazi Germany’s foreign policy in the Arab world and its lingering effects in our day “gets people red in the face.”

Lest you think there aren’t any lingering traces of Nazism in the Arab world, along comes Wiam Wahhab, a former member of Lebanon’s parliament, and confirms that there are. “I like the Germans,” he says in an interview on Al-Jadid/New TV, “because they hate the Jews and they burned them.” Then he laughs like it’s the funniest thing he’s heard in a week.

Now, this man isn’t mainstream. He belongs (of course) to the Hezbollah-led “March 8″ coalition, which is apparently incapable of winning an election or getting its way except by using or threatening violence. And he claims that the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon — which was set up in 2005 to investigate the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri — is an Israeli-American plot to destroy the country. He’s firmly in the minority camp.

Still, can you imagine any American politician from either the House or the Senate, from either the Republican or Democratic party, saying something like that and yukking it up on TV? It would be the instantaneous mother of all career-enders. Wahhab’s career, though, won’t suffer one bit as a result of his saying this.

It’s not that everyone in Lebanon approves of the Holocaust, but enough people do that he’s not embarrassed or ashamed to say that he does. Supporting Hitler’s “Final Solution” isn’t taboo there the way it is here. Supporting Israel is a far bigger offense. Some Lebanese people do support Israel, and some have even taken up arms alongside Israelis; but if they don’t keep quiet about it in public, they’ll suffer serious consequences.

A country where you’ll get in more trouble for supporting Israel than for supporting the Holocaust is a country with serious political problems. Lebanon is among the least anti-Semitic of all the Arabic-speaking countries. Most and possibly all the others are worse.

I understand why many of the intellectuals Paul Berman takes to task have a hard time dealing squarely with this. It’s disturbing. The implications are frightening. And it’s doubly disturbing to those of us who have some affection for the Arab world and wish it well. I’ve spent more time in Lebanon than in any country in the world after the United States, and it’s the only country aside from America that I briefly called home. Yet the facts are the facts. Those of us who would rather see the Middle East flourish than suffer will not see that happen until these poisonous ideas are stamped out or shunted aside. Pretending it has already happened will not make it so.


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