When Cat Stevens was introduced at Jon Stewart’s recent “Rally to Restore Sanity,” the musician also known by his Muslim name Yusuf Islam was greeted with warm applause and howls of approval. It was a strange reception coming from a culturally savvy, mostly twentysomething audience, for while Stevens’s songs are a staple in the 1970s schlock-folk canon, he is best known these days for having supported Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa demanding the execution of novelist Salman Rushdie.
Stevens has tried to whitewash his record over the years, without ever acknowledging or apologizing for his comments, including his response to a British interviewer’s question as to whether he would attend a demonstration to burn an effigy of the writer; Stevens answered glibly that he “hoped that it’d be the real thing.”
“I don’t know why no one in that crowd booed Stevens, or heckled him when he was introduced,” says the British author Nick Cohen, who was in contact with Rushdie after the rally. “Rushdie phoned Stewart, who said he was sorry if it upset him, but it was clear Stewart didn’t really care.”
Presumably what mattered to Stewart and the rally’s cosponsor Stephen Colbert was less Stevens’s willingness to join in the bloodlust of the Islamic Republic of Iran (the fatwa has been reaffirmed by Iran’s current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei) than the fact that Stevens/Islam had been put on a no-fly list by the Bush administration. Never mind that the folk singer had been identified as having donated to a Muslim charity with ties to Hamas; anyone considered unfriendly by Bush is an ally.
Stewart may be just a comedian, as he himself habitually justifies his excesses, but that gives even more reason for concern. It means the rehabilitation of a terrorist sympathizer has now hit the mainstream. What we’re seeing is something akin to the Cold War-era phenomenon of anti-anti-Communism. The anti-anti-Communist left, comprising large sections of the press, academy, and even federal bureaucracies, was simply incapable of understanding that the defense of American civil liberties did not depend on the uncritical defense of the rights of Communists. Call this latest manifestation of liberal illogic anti-anti-Islamism.
While there are a few on the American left, especially in the academy, who maintain that Islamism delivers a valuable critique of Western imperialism, or is a social movement defending the oppressed, this is a minority position. Anti-anti-Islamism is something else: a belief that American opponents of Islamism have cooked up a Muslim scare for their own political benefit, just as anti-Communists once concocted a Red scare.
“The most obvious similarity is that both originate in a denial of the threat,” says Norman Podhoretz, a veteran of both ideological conflicts. “The anti-anti-Communists consistently accused the anti-Communists of exaggerating the Soviet threat from outside and the threat of subversion from within. Anti-anti-Islamists make the same accusations against those who take the Islamist threat seriously. Either we are part of an assault on civil liberties, which we are indifferent to, or we are eager to go to war.”
“The anti-anti-Islamists are extremely parochial,” says Paul Berman, one of liberalism’s few outspoken opponents of Islamism. “These are people who can’t get beyond Republicans and Democrats. It’s about the enemy of my enemy, and ‘my enemy’ for them is the GOP.”
Anti-anti-Islamism is an instrument used to attack Republicans and conservatives, and while no one yet has been tapped to play the role of Joe McCarthy, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s obsession with keeping sharia, or Islamic law, out of the United States may well do more harm than good. The pressing issue in America’s wars is not that American Muslims might want to get married or buried or pass on their estate according to Muslim traditions, but that we have real Islamist enemies like Iran trying to kill our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and supporters of terrorism who live inside our borders and want to shoot us or blow things up.
These are not paranoid fantasies, even as anti-anti-Islamists, like their anti-anti-Communist forebears, pretend otherwise. “The idea is that we have nothing to fear from them except our own overreaction,” says Joshua Muravchik, onetime national chairman of the Young People’s Socialist League and now a fellow at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies. What is true of Iran and terrorism today was true a quarter-century ago. Back then, says Muravchik, “they thought, ‘if only we wouldn’t scare Russians, they wouldn’t behave so badly.’ The anti-anti-Communists believed that the Cold War was as much our fault as theirs.”