The Magazine

Anti-Anti-Islamism

A political tendency is born.

Nov 22, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 10 • By LEE SMITH
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It must seem paradoxical to some that it was during this nearly 50-year reign of presumed paranoia, repression, and violations of civil liberties that the left most vocally articulated its reservations about, or outright hostility to, the American order, both at home and abroad. Under the umbrella of the Cold War, the left enjoyed its greatest triumph with the anti-Vietnam war movement, a glory reflected, albeit dimly, in its support of the Latin American guerrillas who stood against Reagan and the ravages of American empire. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the consequent discrediting of Communism, the American left was without a cause and so it looked to Europe. 

The continent’s post-World War II concerns were of a different provenance: More than Vietnam, it was Algeria that rallied the left. In its efforts to exorcise all of the ghosts from its colonial history, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, Europe identified the country still ostensibly oppressing its Muslim subjects—Israel. To be sure, the continent had a debt to pay to European Jews, but since they now had their own state and were essentially part of the West, Israel had to be made to understand its crime against the Islamic world. The European idea was, is, confused—is it anti-Israel or pro-Muslim or simply a narcissistic projection of fear and resentment masked as solidarity with the Global South’s tragic other? At any rate, the American left grafted Europe’s cause onto its own experience of anti-anti-Communism. In the two decades that have passed since the Rushdie fatwa and the fall of the Soviet Union, this is the ideological mash-up that has turned the American left anti-anti-Islamist. 

“I very much doubt that there would be an international mobilization of writers and activists if something similar to the Rusdhie fatwa happened today,” says Podhoretz. “Would PEN America”—the organization dedicated to protecting freedom of speech and in particular the rights of writers—“mobilize to defend Rushdie?”

In short, no. PEN has chosen instead to defend the rights of Islamists, like the Swiss-born ideologue Tariq Ramadan. Denied a visa by the Bush administration because of his support for a Hamas-affiliated charity, the grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder became a cause célèbre for the American left. Following the Cold War template, the defense of Ramadan was couched in terms of civil liberties: His defenders claimed that Ramadan had been stripped of his right to freedom of speech. Of course, nothing of the sort had happened—no one had thought to censor Ramadan’s widely available books and articles. The U.S. government had withheld a visa from Ramadan that kept him from taking a well-paying teaching position at Notre Dame. When the Obama State Department lifted Ramadan’s visa ban last spring, PEN convened a panel to welcome the writer and “engage” with what are typically described as his valuable contributions to interfaith and inter-civilizational dialogue.

PEN showed just how ambivalent the left is about the free exchange of ideas by declining to invite Paul Berman, who has written extensively, and critically, on Ramadan, most recently in his book The Flight of the Intellectuals. “The defense of Ramadan here in intellectual circles reflects a series of unexamined and in some cases very unattractive assumptions,” says Berman. “Not too many people believe that Islamism represents a progressive force—though some people do believe this, in roundabout ways—but they believe that multiculturalism is to be admired for expressions of authenticity of the self and of culture.”

Indeed, one of the PEN panelists refused to take issue with Ramadan’s squirrelly position that there should be a “moratorium” on Islamic laws that call for the stoning of women. It’s up to Muslims to decide for themselves, Princeton University feminist Joan Wallach Scott told the audience. “What we are seeing is political correctness and multiculturalism turned rancid,” says Berman.

“She’d yell bloody murder if an American equivocated about stoning women,” says Ron Radosh, the prolific historian of American Communism. Scott, as Radosh explains, is a Red-diaper baby who was also head of the academic defense committee for Sami al-Arian, the former University of South Florida professor found guilty of supporting a designated terrorism organization, Palestinian Islamic Jihad. 

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