Saturday, September 03, 2011

Paul Berman on Islamism: "Do Ideas Matter?"

Paul Berman
(Image from New York University)

In a recent article for The New Republic (August 24, 2011), Paul Berman asks "Do Ideas Matter?" in the struggle against Islamism and answers that they do matter, very much so:
The notion that Islamism comes from a different planet and is therefore impervious to understanding or criticism or refutation by infidels from the West seemed to me an Islamist notion, or maybe a Huntingtonian notion. But it was not, in any case, an accurate notion. Back in 1949, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. pointed out in The Vital Center that totalitarians were already engaged, if only in the recesses of their own imaginations, in a heated argument with liberalism and its principles. The totalitarians lived in fear that liberalism was right, and they fretted over the deviant impulses of their own wanton imaginations, and they insisted on peering into everyone else's secret thoughts precisely because they knew that liberal heresies were alluring. Schlesinger made this observation with the European totalitarians in mind, but the observation seemed to me equally insightful about the Islamists in their European and non-European homes. Women's rights, for instance: the Islamist writers, some of them, seemed to be exceptionally fidgety on this issue, as if they were feeling not too secure. But then, if the Islamist ideologues were, in their fashion, already arguing with liberals, surely liberals could argue back.
This is an interesting way to think about the issue. The Islamists dogmatists speak dogmatically because they're privately unsure about their beliefs. Berman insists that we should argue with the Islamists precisely because we can sway them, or at least so deeply undermine their foundational beliefs that Islamism will collapse like Communism did after its ideas were proven false.

This presupposes that Islamism is a movement led by intellectuals. A lot of us have probably noticed that many thwarted suicide bombers are not especially intelligent. Such individuals are cannon fodder, like the tens of thousands indoctrinated at madrassas in Pakistan. But even they are being indoctrinated, i.e., learning a doctrine. At their level of understanding, that doctrine is rather simplistic, but it reflects what the Islamist leaders think and write about. The leaders are intellectuals. We might find many of their views horrifying or even insipid, but regardless of the quality to these ideas, they constitute an ideology, and an ideology can be critiqued. Berman notes that the leaders sometimes seem insecure about particular points, such as women's rights, as if the inequality propounded by Islam strikes even their minds as dubious.

Berman discusses many other, related points, especially the significance of the "Arab Spring," which he thinks owes little to the Islamists and much to Muslim liberals, even if not quite so powerful a force as we might wish. But most importantly, though the article is long, it is worth reading, for it is an implicit reminder that we need to learn a lot about Islam and Islamism, as well as remind ourselves what a liberal society offers that is so much better than an Islamist theocracy.

We should challenge Islamist and their Islamism, and be both bold and confident.

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