To the Editor:
In his review of my book Terror and Liberalism [July-August], David Warren complains about my discussion of the Islamist philosopher Sayyid Qutb and of Islamist anti-Semitism. Referring to me, Mr. Warren says: “He [Berman] cites such curious notions as that, in Sura 5 of the Qur’an, Allah ‘transforms’ the Jews of Medina ‘into apes and pigs,’ which suggests the magic of Circe; the received view, I believe, is that the curse was intended figuratively.” Mr. Warren also argues that Qutb’s anti-Semitism was “different in kind from the anti-Semitism of Christendom,” and conjures its spirit in this fashion: “ ‘Of course the Jews are pigs and monkeys, but it’s nothing personal,’ might be a good way to caricature Qutb’s position, and that of many others.”
I believe that Mr. Warren ought to be a little more cautious in advancing these points. Conventional interpretations do indeed cast a figurative and somewhat tolerant light on certain Qur’anic passages about Jews. But the whole purpose of Islamism is to make a decisive break with conventional interpretations in order to create a revolutionary social system.
Qutb argued against tolerant and figurative interpretations. It is true that, in one passage or another, he offered figurative interpretations of his own; his Qur’anic commentaries, In the Shade of the Qur’an, are vast, and as in any gargantuan work, the arguments lean every which way. Even so, it is not impossible to identify the principal thrust of Qutb’s doctrine about the Jews. (I make this point on the basis of having read seven volumes of In the Shade, about half of the total work, which is all that I have been able to find in English translation, together with three of Qutb’s other works in translation and a Pakistani biography containing a few excerpts.)
Qutb wrote at length and repeatedly about the Jews, and his opinion was nearly always harsh and frequently hateful. Nearly always he insisted on choosing the severest possible Qur’anic interpretation. He explicitly warned, in the course of discussing Sura 5, against relying on the more tolerant passages of the Qur’an itself.
Mr. Warren may suppose that Qutb’s anti-Semitism, because of its Islamic origin, was “different in kind” from Christian anti-Semitism. But Qutb drew on Western sources, too. If we turn from Sura 5 to his commentary on Sura 6, we find Qutb saying about Zionism: “it tries to demolish the basic foundation of human life, so that no human community other than its own can take it as a basis for its code of living. This they state in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
This is not different in kind from the anti-Semitism of 20th-century Europe; it is precisely the anti-Semitism of 20th-century Europe, in its extreme-Right version. Qutb’s anti-Semitism, in sum, downplayed or excluded the more tolerant and traditional Islamic views, emphasized the harsher interpretations, and salted the results with classic Western anti-Semitism.
Mr. Warren expresses an enthusiasm for Bernard Lewis’s new book, The Crisis of Islam, and especially for Lewis’s analysis of Qutb. But Mr. Warren’s enthusiasm may lead some readers to conclude that, in drawing a sharp line between Qutb’s anti-Semitism and the anti-Semitism of the West, he is faithfully treading in Lewis’s scholarly footsteps. That is not the case. Years ago, in his book Semites and Anti-Semites, Lewis did make a point similar to Mr. Warren’s in regard to Qutb. But in The Crisis of Islam, Lewis adopts a new and different position. As he writes in the notes at the end of his book, “it seems likely that Sayyid Qutb’s inspiration” for certain of his writings hostile to the Jews was “European or American.”
One of the consequences of Qutb’s mix of Islamic and Western anti-Semitism has been a cult of random slaughter—something new and heretical in the history of Islam, though old and hoary in the history of Christian Europe. The Qur’anic passage about Jews as monkeys (or apes, depending on the translation) and pigs, from Sura 5, has turned out to be significant in this modern cult. That is why I discuss the phrase in my book. One of Qutb’s ultra-radical ideological heirs in the Islamist movement in Egypt, Sheikh Abel Omar Rahman of the Islamic Group, set up headquarters in Jersey City in the 1990’s and denounced tourism in Egypt; and, in Egypt, Rahman’s followers duly massacred tourists. In 1996, after eighteen Greek tourists were slaughtered at a Cairo hotel in the belief that they were Israelis, Rahman’s organization issued a communiqué denouncing “the Jews, sons of monkeys and pigs.”
Mr. Warren may dismiss the temptation to regard the phrase about monkeys and pigs as anything worrisome, and he may reassure the readers of COMMENTARY that the received interpretation is figurative. But, among the more extreme followers of Qutb, the phrase plainly expresses the kind of dehumanizing hatred that leads people to commit massacres. Let us recall that Sheikh Rahman and his group were the very people who conceived the idea of destroying the World Trade Center, which they tried to do in 1993.
Errors like these on the topic of anti-Semitism have, I believe, led many people to underestimate the dangers of our present age. I can understand why someone with an “area specialty” in Islam might be prone to make such errors (not that Bernard Lewis has done so), on the assumption that sound and conventional interpretations from the past will surely be sound and reliable for all time. But that is why it is good to draw on other literatures, too—the literature of antitotalitarianism, to begin with.
Mr. Warren makes a wisecrack about a troop carrier containing George Orwell, Sidney Hook, and Arthur Koestler (and he might have added Albert Camus, a main influence on my book)—all antitotalitarians of the mid-20th century, “left-flank variety,” in his phrase. But the left flank and its literature have something to tell us about totalitarianism, not just in the European past but in the Muslim present. That is my principal point.
Brooklyn, New York
David Warren writes:
Paul Berman seems to be arguing that in my review of his book, I, unlike Bernard Lewis, overlook the degree to which Sayyid Qutb has bought into a very Western species of anti-Semitism. Most tellingly, he mentions Qutb’s use of that old libel, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Let me start from bewilderment. Even in the 19th and 20th centuries, as I am sure Mr. Berman will agree, anti-Semitism has taken many different forms in the West, and individual anti-Semites have worked from many different motives—often vastly different in turn from those of earlier centuries. Western fanatics have tended to leap at the Protocols, simply because it is there. Ditto the fanatics in the East—I was not denying that Qutb was a fanatic. He reached for any weapon available, and imported Western bigotries as the terrorists have imported Western technology.
Let me make this point plain. From the fact that Arab terrorists flew Western commercial jets into the World Trade Center, it does not follow that they have embraced a Western ideology. They reach for the weapon that is available.
Next, the ideology itself. That the received Islamic worldview of the terrorists has indeed been substantially twisted by contact with totalitarian traditions in the modern and post-modern West is something on which Mr. Berman, Lewis, and I all agree. But as only Lewis and I seem to agree, the main thrust of Qutb’s writing, and of the terrorists, is against jahiliyya—the paganizing of the Muslims. This is vastly different from the main thrust of Western totalitarian movements, which themselves aspire to paganize.
We see where we are going with this when Mr. Berman says the “cult of random slaughter” is “something new and heretical in the history of Islam, though old and hoary in the history of Christian Europe.” That is simply not true. Arab and Muslim history is replete with pogroms against Jews—as against Buddhists, Hindus, Copts, Bahai, Armenians, Spanish Catholics, and so forth. It is foolish to grant Christians a monopoly on pogroms. (And let me assure Mr. Berman that any “cult of random slaughter” would be extremely heretical within Christianity, too.)
Moreover, the Arab rejection of the state of Israel today is flavored by a belief in the inferior, dhimmi status of the Jews that goes back to the Qur’an. The very acceptance of Jews (and Christians) on the part of Islam was predicated on this subordinate and humiliated status. They are “protected,” yes; but so, in principle, are zoo animals.
It is the spectacle of Jews getting “out of their place”—by winning independent self-government—that strikes the deepest note within the distinctively Is lamic anti-Semitism. This is different from the “Christ-killer” impulse behind much Christian anti-Semitism. It is not necessarily less virulent, or potentially less personal, but it did not arise in previous centuries because an independent Israel did not arise.
Notwithstanding my wisecrack, I, like many political conservatives, have a great deal of respect for George Orwell, Sidney Hook, Arthur Koestler, and Albert Camus. They were very helpful in the fight against Communism, and provided many useful insights into the nature of totalitarianism in general. But I do not think they are going to be a great deal of use against what we are now facing. So, on his “principal point,” I am afraid Mr. Berman and I must agree to disagree.
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Varieties of Anti-Semitism
Must-Reads from Magazine
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.