Letter to a Friend: On Islamic Fundamentalism

September 11, 2006 8 p.m.

Today is September 11th and I suppose every single person in this country knows what they were doing on this date five years ago. I recall the feeling of unreality I had as I watched a small TV screen here at home repeatedly play tiny images of two towers collapsing. And then, in the immediate aftermath, do you remember how many in this country – especially among intellectuals and academics – wanted to discuss what “we” had done to “deserve” this? Those were hard days, and in many respects the years since then have been harder still, for although I had by then already spent decades in the strange ideological climate of American academic life, I never expected to see such an orgy of “blame America first” unleashed in this country. Nor did I have any way of anticipating how serious the real consequences would be when those attitudes, nurtured in the idle confines of academia, spilled over into the very dangerous world outside.

I would hate it if our old friendship were to dissolve over politics, mere politics. But I can’t not respond to your last letter, in which you stated that you were just as worried by Christian as by Muslim fundamentalists. Repeatedly in the past few years I’ve heard acquaintances, even relatives, express the same view. To my mind, however, this is a preposterous comment, for it evades the crucial recognition that something new has been unfolding before our eyes. Not that 9/11 inaugurated that new stage. I think, rather, it marked the end of the beginning, and the subsequent stage, the middle part, is still underway. How it will play out is unclear, but I believe that failure to recognize the significance of Muslim terrorism is extremely dangerous and may well haunt us in the future. Equally myopic, I think, are parallels between Christianity in pre-modern times, or violence in the Hebrew Bible, and Islamism today. The fact is that Judaism and Christianity have undergone reforms that took hundreds of years, and Islam, despite some attempts at reform, has not done so, as many Muslim scholars note. So invoking the Crusades and the Inquisition as counters to Islamism today is a misguided thing to do. Yes, possibly Islam might eventually evolve in a more liberal direction, but right now it is fighting any such changes tooth and nail and taking that fight global.

Perhaps you don’t realize that the popularity of radical Islam is rapidly increasing all over the world, to the point that some terrorists in the West are, these days, recent converts to Islam, or immigrants who are unwilling to adapt to the values of the societies in which they sought refuge. But I don’t see how it’s possible to ignore not only the real violence but also the mere threat of violence, which, in conjunction with the spread of radical Islam, is having a profound effect. Who would have expected the most liberal societies (e.g., the Scandinavian countries) to fail to defend their own values against the demands of Muslim immigrants. Consider the episode of the cartoons of Mohammed. With the sole exception of Denmark, where the cartoons were first published last year, the Scandinavian countries didn’t even dare defend free speech and a free press – at least not if Muslims objected. But these same countries do defend the rights of Muslims, probably out of fear of them, to engage in the most open hate-speech. In fact, these still-liberal countries are often financing the very Islamist communities that aim to dismantle them, communities that are insisting on their own separate laws, and courts, and customs…And such demands, backed by threats, seem to be spreading to other countries as well.

It’s true I share your distaste for all types of religious fundamentalism. But that doesn’t prevent me from noting the different demands and agendas of each type, as well as their numbers and influence in the real world today. Where are the Christian fundamentalist leaders whose intent is to destroy another country? Yet many Muslim leaders publicly state that their aim is to destroy Israel. Jews first; then Israel; then Western culture. As Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah, said about Jews: “If they all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.” And Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, states plainly his aspiration to get rid of both America and Israel. There’s no dispute about the statements made by these and other Muslim leaders, merely about whether or not they should be taken seriously. Given the Islamist attacks that have been occurring around the world in recent decades (leaving aside for now the centuries-old matter of Islamic imperialism), the answer appears self-evident.

…I’m pausing here, because I see that in the preceding paragraph I jumped from the general subject of radical Islam to its not-so-hidden agenda, and that has to do with Jews and the state of Israel. This is without doubt at the heart of so much of the debate about the place of Islamism in the contemporary world. It’s worth looking at a map of the Middle East in order to grasp the significance of the rise of radical Islam. There are twenty-two Arab countries. Look at the space they occupy. By contrast, note how small Israel is – in both area and population. Does anyone think or claim that Israel is trying to take over any Arab country? Or that Israel aspires to destroy Arabs, Muslims, or any non-Jews generally? That’s a laughable suggestion, isn’t it? Did you know that Israel has about seven million people (of whom one million are not Jews), and that the whole world today has only about 14 million Jews? But there are 200 million Arabs just surrounding Israel. (This is worth remembering when one reads death rates from the latest military conflicts, which show Israel is more effective militarily than its enemies -thus far at least, no doubt because it has had to be if it hoped to survive). And there are perhaps 1.5 billion Muslims in the world today. Not all of them of the same type, of course, but there’s simply no comparison between the numbers of Muslim fundamentalists and Christian ones, much less Jewish ones, of whom there are very few. Nor, if one tracks their actions, which is far more important than their rhetoric, does it appear that each type of fundamentalism is equally harmful, equally destructive in its influence around the world.

And then there is the matter of the forgotten or ignored history of the Middle East. Few people who weigh in on these subjects seem aware that in 1948 about the same number – 800,000 – of Jews left Arab countries as Arabs left Israel. Those Jews were all welcomed into the small new nation of Israel, while the Arabs who left or were expelled from Israel (the narratives vary) were for the most part not accepted into the surrounding Arab countries. Instead, they were set up in refugee camps, to fester as a group that could be used against the new state. My guess is you didn’t know this detail, so one-sided is the view even, or especially, of educated people, of the conflict between Jews and Arabs. For some years it’s been clear to me that Arabs are winning the propaganda war against Israel, and the displaced Palestinians have had an enormous role in this success. The plan, in other words, has succeeded marvelously and has distracted the entire Arab world for generations now from dealing with its own tyrannies, its critical social and health problems, its populations’ lack of political representation, its brutality toward non-Muslims, its gross inequalities of every kind – all of which dwarf any problems Israel might have in forging a just society. Sure, it’s easy enough to criticize one or another Israeli policy, but that does not alter the fact that Arab and Muslim hostility to Israel (both physical and ideological) goes back to before 1973, before 1967, before 1948. Have you heard about the forced conversion of Jews to Islam as late as the nineteenth century? About the Arab riots in Jerusalem that began in 1920 and the effort to force Jews out of Palestine decades before the creation of the state of Israel? About the anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood, ancestor of Hamas and other radical Muslim groups, which came into being in the 1920s in Egypt and spread from there?

Did you know that until 1967 there wasn’t even a “Palestinian” identity among those Arabs that had left Israel? Only a general undifferentiated Arab identity, riven by internecine conflicts and with shifting borders as political and doctrinal quarrels unfolded? Though you’re acquainted a bit with my family history, it probably never occurred to you that I am actually a Palestinian, born in Palestine, where my mother’s family went (when do you think? do you believe we were all refugees from Nazi Europe?) at the beginning of the 20th century. But of course no Jew today is considered Palestinian, a term that has acquired a specific political connotation. The radical Muslim view (which flies in the face of thousands of years of history) that Jews have no historical ties in that part of the world has gained considerable ground of late, as I was reminded by an “innocent” comment made to me recently by a historian colleague, a decent person no doubt, who wondered aloud whether it really was a good idea to have established the state of Israel in the first place. About what other country in the world is such a question ever raised?

Though I was born in Jerusalem, you and I have rarely discussed the Middle East. Every other political issue in the world, yes, but not that one. Perhaps we avoided it; or perhaps I did so – out of a desire not to engage in any special pleading. Certainly, I was never a defender of Israel. For years I followed the line that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians (using the now-conventional terms) was one of two competing nationalisms, a view that makes it unnecessary to actually learn any history! I even used to defend the one-state solution, Palestinians and Israelis living in harmony together. In the radical circles that I frequented at the time, no one pointed out that simple demographics would mean Israel would soon enough turn into a non-Jewish state; nor did I know anything about the long history of dhimmitude – the subjection of non-Muslim peoples to Islam, or what it meant.

I think it was only about eight or ten years ago that I became increasingly impatient with the standard anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian views in my academic milieu. No doubt this was part of my growing disillusionment with so much academic discourse. The more I saw particular views (on the Left) take on the status of unquestioned truths, the more skeptical I grew. And it became impossible for me not to notice what seemed to be an unwritten code among us academics: Israel was not to be defended, nor were Jews. Our Vietnam-era politics seem to have automatically assigned us to the pro-Palestinian side, befitting all our other Third-Worldist sympathies, often unencumbered by real information.

But even once I did start to wake up, you and I still never discussed the Middle East. I knew it was not a subject that interested you much, and it was easy for me to ignore it as well. No more. I wonder, now, at the “postmodernist” equanimity that refuses to register the reality of different societies, their histories, their values. For the reality is that Israel is virtually the only country in the Middle East where there exists a free press, free elections (and real opposition in politics), where women have full political and civil rights, and there is open homosexuality – just to mention a few things that are sine qua non for campus activists. And all these, too, are under attack by radical Muslims who want to spread Sharia throughout the world,, who openly talk about reestablishing the caliphate, the high point of Muslim domination of the world. Meanwhile, in Arab and Muslim countries, anti-Semitic propaganda is now routine, with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion once again widely circulated and believed, and with TV shows that are blatantly anti-Semitic (and of course anti-Zionist) targeting children in the Middle East. In Europe, too, anti-Semitism is spreading at an alarming rate and is evidently once again becoming respectable. True, it’s mostly in Africa and the Middle East that the standard, not the extremist, view is that no Jews were killed in the World Trade Center because they’d all been warned and therefore hadn’t gone to work that day; but even in Europe and the U.S. one hears this claim made in all seriousness from time to time.

Have you seen footage in the last few years of the major anti-war groups in the U.S.? The anti-war movement is mired in anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian sentiment – which suggests that anti-Bush anti-war passions aren’t really about whether or not Bush was justified in invading Iraq. I suspect that a great many people on the Left have had their brains permanently addled by their hatred of Bush, to the point that they’d be satisfied if Iraq turned into a total disaster – just so that Bush could be blamed for it.

And then there is the incontrovertible reality that Israel is criticized for things no other country in the world is criticized for (including the right to defend itself). This detail ought to make any rational person wonder about the energy driving these criticisms. Actually, Israel’s actions are constantly debated by its own population, where no one is afraid of voicing dissent. But when one contemplates the very different standards to which Israel is held, it’s hard to avoid the implication that no one expects Muslims to behave in a civilized way, so they don’t get subjected to criticism even when their actions are far more savage than anything Israel has ever done. What do you suppose the reaction would be if Israelis beheaded a kidnapped journalist and sent those photos around the world? And, by the way, Daniel Pearl was far from the only person beheaded in recent years by Islamists. Where is the outrage about such barbarism? Instead one finds apologetics and cautions to not generalize about Islam from “isolated incidents.”

The recent war between Israel and Lebanon has provided another handy occasion for the closet anti-Semites to come out, by claiming they’re not at all anti-Semitic, merely anti-Israeli. This would be a legitimate distinction if there weren’t a complete identity between these two in the minds of many Muslims and their sympathizers. Just read what Muslims say about Jews. Not that they’re much kinder to Christians Do you know about the centuries-old Muslim attacks on Christian communities in the Middle East? Have you noticed that the moderate Muslims we hope actually exist in the Middle East and elsewhere rarely speak up and thus have virtually no representation anywhere? It’s probably because they know better than most how their co-religionists traditionally deal with dissenters (as with apostates).

Did you notice how little attention was given to the fact – plainly reported but rarely discussed — that the two Fox news journalists kidnapped in Gaza (in August 2006) were forced to convert to Islam in order to save their own lives? As if this were an insignificant detail instead of a major indicator of what Muslim radicals have in mind. (Are Christian fundamentalists forcing conversions on anyone?) Equally interesting was that no one bothered to consider the significance of the detail that the journalists themselves and everyone concerned about them breathed a sigh of relief when they were back in Israel, that supposedly iniquitous country! Apparently everyone knows, despite all the bad press about Israel being just like Nazi Germany, that Israel is in fact a liberal democracy and that these men would be safe there, as are the gay Muslims who take refuge in Israel. Yet it’s Israel, not any Arab or Muslim country, that is the object of attacks in the media (where staged events are reported as outrages committed by Israel), and it’s Israel alone that is the target of divestment campaigns and boycotts by westerners.

I am astonished that so many academics on the supposedly progressive side simply do not admit that everything they value (including cultural diversity, gay rights, women’s empowerment, the freedom to express their own ideas) is literally intolerable to radical Islam, and that millions of people today adhere to this view of Islam and loudly proclaim their hatred of the West and all it stands for. The silence of most American feminists is particularly appalling, and I can only imagine that they are caught in their own ideological schemata, which somehow blind them to the necessity of protesting oppression when it is perpetrated by non-Anglo, non-White people.

Despite all the charges of racism, I don’t see much anti-Arab or anti-Muslim sentiment in this country. Certainly not on college campuses where criticism of Israel and the U.S. is constantly voiced and seldom challenged. It’s striking that even our conservative president feels obliged to echo standard liberal pro-multicultural ideas – for example, to carefully distinguish between the “few” bad guys and all the other Muslims in the U.S. But he’s right that there is an Islamic fascism, if one understands fascism as a totalitarian control over all aspects of life. Read what Islamist leaders say quite openly about their agenda; it absolutely does not include tolerance of opposing or dissenting ideas, free speech, freedom of religion or conscience, or women’s rights. Why shouldn’t Islamic fundamentalists be ever more blatant about their beliefs? They are growing in popularity and their numbers are increasing. The history of Islamic terrorism over the past few decades (even leaving aside the long historical record) reveals that it’s not because of what Bush or his predecessors have done, but because of the whole complex of modernization, liberalization, and secularization that these fundamentalists cannot abide, for these will indeed challenge and assail their beliefs, and perhaps change them.

If you are still tempted to worry as much, as you wrote, about Christian fundamentalists as about Muslim ones, just ask yourself about the agenda of each group, their numbers, their geographical presence, their past and present violent actions, the political responses to them, and the sort of press they each get in the West. So – the problem of phony parallels (between Muslim and other fundamentalists; between Israel and South Africa or – as is openly said these days – Israel and Nazi Germany) really does need to be cleared up. True, not all terrorists are Muslims. But in fact global terrorism these days is almost entirely an expression of radical Islam – with a political-theological program and a clearly-articulated agenda. Do Basque terrorists attack North America? Did the IRA? Nor should anyone think these Islamists are just isolated fanatics; Nasrallah has become a hero in much of the Muslim world, as is Bin Laden.

Few of our colleagues seem to understand that Islam is not merely a religion. It is a religious and a political movement, and in these intertwined aspects it does represent a threat to western, modernizing, and liberal values everywhere. Yet on campus (and far too often in the media) we are busily treating the Islamic world as a Third World underdog that has to be defended, excused, and protected from criticism. At least that’s the most generous explanation I can think of for so many colleagues’ gross ignorance and lethal politics. Or is it that they don’t really believe there’s any danger? Do they have so little respect for Muslims today that they assume they could never succeed in imposing their views on the non-Muslim world? If not, why are they so unconcerned about their own future? Have they truly no clue as to what an Islamist regime would mean for everything – every single value, belief, principle, and everyday matter – these academics hold dear? And these are the very academics who constantly assert that all education is political, which gives them a pretext for not even trying to keep their politics out of the classroom. What, then, do you suppose they’re conveying to their students?

But what most distresses me is that our generation of professors has contributed in a major way to the current atmosphere, one in which many academics are reticent about criticism of Islamism while also being unable or unwilling to see our own society as worth defending. It’s as if those of us who have had the best that this country has to offer have, through some twisted logic, become unable to see what it is about this society that, whatever its defects, makes people from all over the world wish to live here. After all, it’s our generation that caricatured the western tradition as the work merely of “dead white men”; it’s people like you and me who led the charge against “ethnocentrism” and “Eurocentrism,” who popularized ceaseless talk of “white privilege,” and promoted attacks on science and reason as uniquely western prejudices.

For years we echoed the standard nonsense about the bankruptcy of the Enlightenment project and repeated Marcuse’s views on “repressive tolerance,” as if these were a real response to the tyranny and censorship found in so many other societies. No wonder so few of our colleagues and students are able, let alone willing, to defend those western values. And why should I even be surprised at anything that goes on in academic and intellectual circles? I’m sure I’ve told you that, merely for describing the intolerance and dogmatism so rampant in women’s studies programs, I’ve been labeled an “anti-feminist supporter of white male supremacists” (I kid you not), and a reactionary, and . . . the labels go on and on. But the personal annoyances of such things matter not at all in this sorry story, compared to the possibility that we are watching our society commit suicide, with “the best and the brightest” lighting the way.

There is a passage from the famous Jewish sage Hillel that I often think of these days. More than 2000 years ago he wrote: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”


Daphne Patai teaches in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. This article is from her book What Price Utopia? and Other Unpopular Essays, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.

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