Commentary Magazine


The Enduring Power of Ideas

Paul Berman has written his latest lengthy essay for The New Republic on Islamism and related issues. As with much of his other writings on the topic since 9/11 (in particular his 2010 book The Flight of the Intellectuals), it deserves serious attention for the way he reminds so many people who should not need reminding how deeply ideas matter.

Like much else being published and broadcast just now, Berman locates his article and himself around 9/11. This is to the good. Anniversaries concentrate the mind and generate healthy reflection. And it seems difficult to overstate the psychological importance of the coming 10th anniversary to America, along with  the new gleaming tower at Ground Zero and its accompanying museum.

But Berman’s true focus is the question of whether or not the Islamists can bend 2011’s ongoing Arab revolutions to their will. In this he refreshingly focuses not on the fate of Tunisia’s economy for the next few quarters or the shifting timelines for elections in Egypt but on the power of Islamist ideas and their generators, and the prospects those ideas could come to be the governing power of the newly liberated societies. Surveying the landscape, he notes “the backing of Iran, huge organizations, mosques, a powerful and weathered sense of discipline linked to a long-haul strategy, experienced leaders, and financing that appears to be unlimited,” besides control of Gaza, large parts of Lebanon, and the militias that “prowl” both Iraq and Yemen. All made possible by the depth and quality of Islamist thought.

Perhaps Berman’s firmest departure from the company of other left-wing intellectuals in the past decade has been his unwillingness to concede the truth of anything the Islamists posit along with an admiration for the power of their ideas. As he puts it, “The entire power of the movement… rests on the leaders’ ability to hypnotize large publics into believing that only the Islamist scholars can penetrate the mystery of what you should do today and tomorrow.”

Can the Facebook liberals, with their still ill-formed but passionately felt commitment to freedom and democracy, compete? Their victory doesn’t seem the most likely outcome, not because the power of their ideas is any less that of the Islamists (exactly the opposite), but because most of the intellectuals and so many of the politicians of the West (their natural allies and the source of strength they will need) are busy looking the other way, or delivering lectures about the need to include the Islamists in the democratic process or to be on guard against “Islamophobia.” And that is because Islamists “have won an amazing number of debates” in the West, convincing an ever larger chorus of writers, academics, magazines, and artists of all stripes the fantasy of Israeli evil is the region’s great problem, not the neo-fascist Islamists.

The proof is of course, everywhere. But Berman finds it easily enough in the anti-Israel petition stuffed into his faculty mailbox at New York University not accompanied by others decrying any of the Middle East’s true terrors.

Like the rise of both Christianity and Islam, and the power of the Enlightenment ideals that paved the way for today’s liberal democratic societies, ideas not only matter, they are usually of the first consequence. We should forever keep that at the front of our minds.