Every so often, it’s good to read a magazine for the pictures. You’ll learn more from The Atlantic Monthly’s June 2011 Arab cover girl, posed not so differently from the worst kinds of Islamophobic propaganda, than from Jeffrey Goldberg’s accompanying article. From under her black shroud, all you can see are those seductive, suspicious eyes, and beneath them, the incandescent headline: “Is This the Face of Arab Democracy?”
THERE HAVE BEEN HELPFUL analyses of the Arab Spring. This is not one of them. Goldberg vacantly stares into crowds of Arab protesters and fears empowered Arabs, deciding their own destiny, indifferent to his expert advice. So instead he pretends not to see, and offers us what he’d prefer the case to be. People in the Middle East still want to be like us, only more so! They’re convinced we’re not in decline! (Goldberg so hammers at this point, it’s clear even he doesn’t believe his interlocutors.) Let’s decide their future for them! We have to keep on the watch for “political Islam”!1
For whatever the Arab Spring has changed, it has not changed this hubris, this unearned right to remind the southern nations to behave themselves. Of course, you could’ve gleaned as much from the cover model.
FEAR OF A DARKER, DEMOCRATIC PLANET
We could ascribe Goldberg’s wariness over the Arab revolutions to a judicious fear of politicized religion. That is a legitimate concern, and has been ably explored. But that wouldn’t explain the article’s alarmist tone. Goldberg’s concern is neither the realization of an abstract secularism nor the political consequences of institutionalized religion. He is one of a number of pundits whose mission it is to focus in on Islam as if it was an exception to the world, alien to the “international community” most often invoked by a privileged minority.
Much of Goldberg’s concern has to do with Islam’s allegedly violent and predatory nature, and as such, the (Judeo-) Christian world (or the secular West; the boundaries are usually the same) must defend itself from it. The concern is instinctive, like prejudice: Elsewhere, Goldberg himself immediately blames the July 22nd Oslo massacre on Muslims. Evidence be damned. He felt it in his gut, even though at the time of his assigning guilt, nothing was known about the attacker, his motives, or even whether he had accomplices.
Contrast this rush to judgment with FOX News’ panicked rush to disabuse the world of any notion that Anders Behring Breivik acted in the name of Christianity.2 Goldberg is an intellectual participant in a larger story that deems Muslims alien to all things Western (or Christian, or secular – however you want to put it). The story has many tellers, from Pamela Geller’s crude rantings, to Robert Spencer’s adorable attempts at history, to more polished individuals such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Christopher Caldwell, Christopher Hitchens, and even political figures such as Newt Gingrich and Allen West.
As their narrative goes, Islam should be presumed guilty of malice and interference, and so deeply deserves an extended interrogation. For what is Islam but a new presence in Europe, or a historically superseded intruder on Europe’s self-development? Centuries of indigenous existence, peaceful trade and civilizational accomplishment are ignored, denied or derided. Breivik is interpreted as responding to the fear of Islam, and not continuing in a tradition of extremist European violence against minorities, whose darkest legacies are known to us all: Auschwitz, Srebrenica, Grozny.
And because this exclusionary narrative claims to speak not on behalf of itself but universally (without the intellectual courage and, often, critical ability to actually engage universally), it must hide its partisanship behind emotive claims: Our use of force is rational, humane and therefore legitimate, but your use of force is brutal, medieval and illegitimate. Intentionality is the first refuge of the clueless. If Christians enter politics with religious agendas, or go to war on the basis of civilizational or cultural superiority, we can rest assured that their motives are pure, and thus their actions can be excused. But how do they know?
Even defenses of Islam offered by some of the more liberally minded are not dissimilarly offensive, though likely unintentionally. “Before you judge all of Islam by September 11th,” the argument goes, “remember the Crusades.” Quite the backhanded defense: We escaped medieval barbarity and so can you. We’re not genetically better, but simply farther ahead than you. The assumption remains of an Islamic proclivity for violence that, though excused, is done so by unfavorable comparison. Copy us and be free.
“THE FEAR HERE ISN’T OF RELIGION IN POWER, OR EVEN VIOLENCE, CONSIDERING THAT SIM ILAR FORMS OF VIOLENCE ARE TOLERATED, EVEN ENCOURAGED–NOT FOR ANY BETTER REASONS, BUT BECAUSE THEY ARE EXERCISED BY DIFFERENT PEOPLE.”
Goldberg falls within both these narratives, concerned that Muslims are alien to Europe but also concerned that Muslims hurry up and follow Europe. Either way, his concern is not so much with Islam even, but with Muslims empowered, doing so on their own terms, and therefore challenging the more polite liberal dismissal of Islamic culture and society: You’re not categorically inferior, but moral, and therefore cultural and political, equality only comes down one road. Our road.
Thus the question of Islam and violence becomes the most pressing concern before us – whereas the majority of the world’s weapons are neither produced, nor maintained, nor purchased by Muslims. For such are the means by which Muslim democracy is ignored, even intellectually and culturally subverted (forget active intervention in undoing Muslim democracy). Because the fear here isn’t of religion in power, or even violence, considering that similar forms of violence are tolerated, even encouraged – not for any better reasons, but because they are exercised by different people.
And that’s the point of it.
“FOX HAS HAD A PROFOUND AND TOXIC EFFECT ON THE PRESS AND POLITICS IN THIS COUNTRY… ACCORDING TO A PUBLIC-OPINION STUDY RELEASED SIX MONTHS AFTER THE INVASION OF IRAQ, 67 PERCENT OF REGULAR FOX VIEWERS BELIEVED THAT THE UNITED STATES HAD FOUND CLEAR EVIDENCE THAT SADDAM HUSSEIN HAD WORKED CLOSELY WITH AL-QAEDA.”
How do we know to dismiss American presidential candidates endlessly invoking their Christianity, but remain zeroed in on Recep Erdogan and Turkey’s defection to a mythical East? (It is fascinating that the West, a commonly invoked cultural concept, should imagine for its opposite an “East” composed of people with little tangible connection except that they are not Western.) How do we know whose motives to trust, and whose to suspect, except that some people are inherently trustworthy? Perhaps because they wear the right kind of clothes.
If the problem really was with religion in power, then shouldn’t we be equally afraid of Christianity in politics, or corporate control over news and politics? If not for some in the right-wing political complex adopting a muscular pseudo-Christian rhetoric, it’s quite arguable that the stunningly violent Iraq war would never have happened. As Massing points out:
Fox has had a profound and toxic effect on the press and politics in this country. … According to a public-opinion study released six months after the invasion of Iraq, 67 percent of regular Fox viewers believed that the United States had found clear evidence that Saddam Hussein had worked closely with al-Qaeda.
Going back just 15 years, Muslims were slaughtered in a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing by Serbian Orthodox Christians in the Balkans. And yet we are told that marginalized Muslim minorities represent a different type of danger, a structural threat to a hitherto peaceful European continent.
Goldberg himself encourages our support for odious dictators, whose crimes are not morally distinguishable from terrorism. The reason he asks us to continue supporting these folks is because they keep other folks out of power, which means his moral calculus comes down to this: He’s far more comfortable with injustices done to people he is made uncomfortable by. The prospect of similar injustices meted out by people he is in disagreement with fills him with trepidation.
IT’S NOT LEFT OR RIGHT,
IT’S RIGHT AND WRONG
The threat to Muslim rights and freedoms does not merely come from the ranting and raving of media-savvy mediocrities. Many supposedly liberal intellectuals tarry a bit too long on the question of Islam and violence. In reality this is not as much a concern about violence than it is about who commits that violence and against whom. It is part of a deeper antagonism against Islam that has violent consequences, not only in Anders Breivik’s slaughter, but also in the political climate that makes war against Muslims – whether directly by force of arms, or indirectly by supplying arms – tolerable.
Over the course of the Arab revolutions, many established pundits have shown themselves to be less discomfited by brutal regime tactics against Islamist movements than the excesses of such movements themselves. It is prejudice, plain and simple. It is the fear of a more democratic planet, in which Goldberg no longer has the luxury of being wrong and yet continuing to pontificate. The best articulation of this fear comes from the late Tony Judt, who noted how the same people who had cheered the Iraq war had not been even mildly chastened by the violent consequence of their stupid hubris:
The only people qualified to speak on this matter, it would seem, are those who got it wrong initially. Such insouciance in spite of – indeed because of – your past misjudgments recalls a remark by the French ex-Stalinist Pierre Courtade to Edgar Morin, a dissenting Communist vindicated by events: “You and your kind were wrong to be right; we were right to be wrong.”3
THE NEXT MUSLIM UMMAH
And yet, for all the animosity against Muslims, cycles of history cannot be stopped. It must be hard to accept that one of the last phases in colonialism is coming to an end – whether the waning of oppressive client states (Egypt and Tunisia), militant regimes hiding behind the confusion of Western culture with democracy (Turkey), or suffocating regimes surviving off the crude narrative of civilizational incompatibility (Iran).
The proper response to North African and Middle Eastern democracy is not to wonder about whether Islam is somehow especially violent, especially galling after the billions of dollars that came from the “rational,” “modern” and “progressive” world to provide weapons and training to meddle in politics or create approved politics. To even wonder as much indicates that while all human beings have rights, some have the exclusive right to do to (and decide for) others.
The proper response to Arab freedom movements is to commit, in word and deed, to a human standard, respectful of genuinely different modes of approaching and living in the world, that acknowledges and honors different perspectives, gives everyone the right to a meaningful and fulfilling life, and invites all parties to the table to have a stake in society that is substantive but not excessive.
This standard extends to people all over the planet, facing the radically unsettling effects of a cynical capitalist project, rapidly shifting economic fortunes, massive resource consumption, rising disparities of wealth within many societies and global climate change. In all societies, in fact, the same concern can and should compel us: How do we prevent extreme concentrations of wealth, which enable concentrations of cultural, military and political power, deeply dangerous to democracy? The answer to this question, in whatever language it is articulated and defended, will be fiercely protective of humanity’s innate and common dignity, and will, needless to say, have the moral common sense to ignore prejudices born of no deeper criterion than this: Do they wear bikinis on the beach, or do they put some fabric on their heads? §
Haroon Moghul is Associate Editor at Religion Dispatches, a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and a doctoral candidate at Columbia University.
1 Goldberg says he hasn’t met anyone who believes the U.S. in decline. However right or wrong the proposition, any glance at regional and international media will indicate that perceptions of America’s decline are quite common, whether those are cheerful or morose. As for the broader question of America’s relevance to the region, a Pew survey found that fewer than 1 in 5 in post-Mubarak Egypt approve of the United States’ policies; across the region, the U.S. is now more unpopular than it was under President George W. Bush. For more, see http://pewglobal.org/2010/06/17/obama-more-popular-abroad-than-at-home/
2 An excellent analysis of this defensiveness can be found in Michael Massing’s “It’s Time to Scrutinize FOX.” The New York Review of Books Blog, July 30, 2011. Accessed at HYPERLINK “http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/jul/30/its-time-scrutinize-fox/” http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/jul/30/its-time-scrutinize-fox/
3 Tony Judt. “Bush’s Useful Idiots.” The London Review of Books. Vol. 28, No. 18. 21 September 2006, pp. 3-5. A brilliant professor last at NYU, Judt was a tremendous writer, courageous thinker and deeply moving observer of human nature and societies. And the conclusion to The Memory Chalet, among his last works, will leave an outsized ache in your soul