Founded after the 1989 revolution by liberal intellectuals from the Group For Social Dialogue, the 22 of the title refers to December 22nd 1989, the day Nicolae Ceaucescu fled the Communist party’s Central Committee building by helicopter following the incidents at Timişoara which led to his downfall.
Next week’s issue will be a special issue on the decade after 07/11 and I deliberately gave this (and Islamic terrorism) only a passing reference – putting it in the context of shared corporate and state interests and the failure of the anti-globalisation forces to use the opportunity of the financial meltdown.
The New Republic is an excellent journal I seldom mention. Like most of the global media, they too are running a special issue on 09/11 (unfortunately behind a pay-wall). But one of the contributions - Do ideas matter?– looks carefully at Islamic militancy in the wider context of the animosities that liberal societies arouse from time to time -
By liberal societies, I meant societies of the kind that encourage people to think rationally and creatively for themselves, and try to protect everyone’s right to do so, instead of demanding, as non-liberal societies do, that everyone adhere to the venerable and bow to the hierarchical. Liberal societies have been growing for the last couple of centuries, and liberal principles have been spreading around the world. But liberalism’s progress has also turned out to be, for a great many people, humiliating and terrifying, not to mention disastrous, on occasion. The liberal enterprise has kept on swelling, even so—and among the people who have felt outraged or frightened, the dynamism and the evident attractiveness of liberal principles around the world have sometimes generated panic, too, along with a suspicion that gigantic and sinister conspiracies must be at work. And the frightened people have rebelled. Sometimes they rebelled in the hope of preserving the past, a theme for peasants and artisans; and sometimes in the hope of merely expressing themselves, a theme for poets.Today's Observer carries the latest in the story of health reform in the UK.
But in Europe in the years after World War I, the rebellions also broke out in the form of well-organized mass political movements with revolutionary aspirations. These were movements of the extreme right, or the extreme left, or right and left at once. But mostly these were movements of the avant-garde. The founders were typically charismatic intellectuals who knew how to paint their doctrines in the colors of the future, which was thrilling. And the leaders recounted grand mythologies of world history. The surface details in those mythologies varied from movement to movement.
Still, if you looked beneath the surface, the mythologies tended to be the same. They told a story about a virtuous and superior population that had come under attack from a cosmic conspiracy of foreign enemies and internal subversives. The virtuous and superior population would shortly wage apocalyptic war to fend off the foreign enemies and to exterminate the subversives. And, after the apocalypse, the virtuous and superior population would resurrect an ancient empire from the Golden Age, except in a high-tech modern version—a perfect utopia offering a solution to all of life’s problems, which liberalism does not try to do. The mythology ended, in short, at totalitarianism.
The Islamist and Baathist obsessions about imperialist and Zionist plots, the calls for a utopian resurrection of the ancient Caliphate of yore (which meant theocracy for the Islamists and one-party rule for the Baath), the massacres that followed the Islamist and Baath movements like a shadow—all this seemed, from my lookout perch, entirely recognizable. Here were the worst parts of twentieth-century Europe, creatively adapted to the traditions and circumstances of the Middle East.
The whole history of the Marxist guerrilla movement had demonstrated that, if you can assemble even a modest cadre from among the well-educated, and you can motivate the members to forsake their privileges and comforts and trek into the badlands or the mountains, the cadre will always be able to recruit the wretched of the earth into the battalions of your insurgent army. And you can send those recruits to their deaths, regardless of the name of your cause or the preposterousness of its ideology or its prospects of success.
The Islamist movement was founded in Egypt in 1928, but it also got started more or less independently in other places over the next few years, and its overall progress has been relatively slow, compared with the amazing speed of the European totalitarian movements in their day. Islamism has ended up more loosely structured, as a result. Still, Islamism, too, is a product of charismatic intellectuals. Islamism may well be the most purely intellectual movement of all. Islamism reveres its scholars. The entire power of the movement, its mainstream mass organizations and its jihadi battalions alike, rests on the leaders’ ability to hypnotize large publics into believing that only the Islamist scholars, through their exegetical insights into sacred texts, can penetrate the mystery of what you should do today and tomorrow. That is the meaning of “Islam is the solution.”
But this merely suggests that Islamism offers one more instance of the independent power of ideas—in Islamism offers one more variation on a recognizably modern impulse, which is the avant-garde urge to rebel against liberal ideas and customs—if this is true even in a modest degree, then it makes sense to emphasize the importance of argument and criticism, including arguments and criticisms from outside the Muslim community. Although no one can doubt that, in the matter of argument, the insiders of the Muslim world, and not the outsiders, will make the most persuasive points.
The progressive thinkers from Muslim backgrounds, the people who have chosen to retain their religious identity and the people who have chosen to foreswear it, the people who have experienced for themselves the atmosphere of the Muslim Brotherhood and its fraternal organizations, the jihadis who have contemplated their course in life and have elected to become thoughtful and articulate exjihadis, the people who know what it is to be locked in an Egyptian jail, the people who find no difficulty in invoking in a single breath their own experiences and the principles of John Stuart Mill, the people who know how to distinguish a genuine feminism from the Islamist variety—these people, the Muslim liberals (or liberal ex-Muslims, as the case may be), will turn out to be the counterparts of the Soviet and Eastern Bloc dissidents. All the efforts of American commandos and drones notwithstanding, they are the ones who will bring the movement down.