Paul Berman on Globalizing "The Thought Police"
The New Republic
Paul Berman, who has previously investigated Islamist ties to fascist thought and totalitarian movements, has a new essay published on Islamism, "The Thought Police" (The New Republic, March 14, 2012), in which he reviews the book Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide, by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea. For the most part, he praises their book and agrees with their analysis that Islamism is winning in the Muslim world -- and also in the non-Muslim world. But for what reason is Islamism winning?
[The reason] is systematic intimidation. The radicals, who are perfectly happy to argue in a conventional manner, are equally happy, should argument fail, to enforce through violence.They use extreme violence, or at least its threat, to enforce silence not only in Muslim lands, but globally. Berman summarizes the past couple of decades, in which this global force has revealed itself:
The more expansive rethinking [of Islamists in their attempt to impose aspects of sharia on non-Muslims globally] emerged only in the course of the Rushdie affair in 1988–1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini and other leaders judged that corporal retribution for the satanic act of writing and publishing The Satanic Verses should be meted out even to Rushdie's publishing houses, translators, and booksellers in all parts of the world, unto California, which experienced an arson, and Japan, which saw a murder. The Age of the Rushdie Affair, having gotten under way, has not yet come to an end. Marshall and Shea summarize some of its continuing manifestations: the murder of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker, on an Amsterdam street in 2004; the response to a dozen Danish cartoons in 2005 lampooning Islamic terrorism, which generated mass demonstrations, riots, and arson attacks and, all in all, 241 deaths around the world; the repeated attempts to murder the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who drew the most pointed and memorable of the cartoons (the one depicting Muhammad with a bomb tucked into his turban), with would-be assassins arrested as far away as Chicago; the response to Benedict XVI's lecture at Regensburg, Germany, in 2006, which led to the murder of Christians in Iraq and Somalia and to bombings and shootings aimed at Christian centers in Gaza and the Palestinian West Bank.Berman continues in this vein for several more paragraphs and concludes: "There are far too many of these incidents and unhappy life-stories to dismiss the lot of them as a marginal phenomenon." He then speaks of his pessimism about the Arab Spring, and readers of this blog will know that I share his pessimism, but he expresses it far better than I, so read his article.
On one point of his argument, however, I have some doubts. Relying upon Paul Marshall and Nina Shea, Berman appears to think that Islam's political dimension can be excised from its religious dimension. He cites three liberal Muslim scholars, the late, former president of Indonesia Abdurrahman Wahid, the late Egyptian scholar of literature Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd, and the Maldivean professor in exile Abdullah Saeed, all three of whom argue that the current Islamist political movements are incompatible with various humanist traditions going back to Islam's medieval Golden Age. There's undoubtedly something to this argument, for there was a Golden Age, though I suspect that its golden shine was gild more than gold and its achievements due less to Islam itself and more due to an incomplete process of Islamization.
Why are the Islamists winning the argument among Muslims despite some 'humanist' traditions? Perhaps because their own traditions are deeper? Perhaps because they can point to an origin in which their religious founder and model for conduct was a man who combined the roles of prophet, general, and king? Perhaps because Islam has an affinity for totalitarian systems and for that reason flirted with the early twentieth-century fascism and now flirts with a left also restrictive of free speech? These are questions that have to be taken seriously even if Islam does have a few more enlightened traditions.