Why is the left afraid to face up to the threat of radical Islam?
BY BRET STEPHENS
The Wall Street Journal Sunday, September 17, 2006
Here's a puzzle: Why is it so frequently the case that the people who have the most at stake in the battle against Islamic extremism and the most to lose when Islamism gains--namely, liberals--are typically the most reluctant to fight it?
It is often said, particularly in the "progressive" precincts of the democratic left, that by aiming at the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and perhaps the Capitol, Mohamed Atta and his cohorts were registering a broader Muslim objection to what those buildings supposedly represented: capitalism and globalization, U.S. military power, support for Israel, oppression of the Palestinians and so on.
But maybe Ms. Newman intuited that Atta's real targets weren't the symbols of American mightiness, but of what that mightiness protected: people like her, bohemian, sexually unorthodox, a minority within a minority. Maybe she understood that those F-16s overhead--likely manned by pilots who went to church on Sunday and voted the straight GOP ticket--were being flown above all for her defense, at the outer cultural perimeter of everything that America's political order permits.
This may be reading too much into Ms. Newman's essay. Yet after 9/11 at least a few old-time voices on the left--Christopher Hitchens, Bruce Bawer, Paul Berman and Ron Rosenbaum, among others--understood that what Islamism most threatened wasn't just America generally, but precisely the values that modern liberalism had done so much to promote and protect for the past 40 years: civil rights, gay rights, feminism, privacy rights, reproductive choice, sexual freedom, the right to worship as one chooses, the right not to worship at all. And so they bid an unsentimental goodbye to their one-time comrades and institutions: the peace movement, the pages of The Nation and the New York Review of Books, "the deluded and pathetic sophistry of postmodernists of the left, who believe their unreadable, jargon-clotted theory somehow helps liberate the wretched of the earth," as Mr. Rosenbaum wrote in the New York Observer in 2002.
Five years on, however, Messrs. Hitchens, Bawer, et al., seem less like trendsetters and more like oddball dissenters from a left-liberal orthodoxy that finds less and less to like about the very idea of a war on Islamic extremism, never mind the war in Iraq. In the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly, James Fallows, formerly Jimmy Carter's speechwriter, argues that the smart thing for the U.S. to do is declare victory and give the conflict a rest: "A state of war with no clear end point," he writes, "makes it more likely for a country to overreact in ways that hurt itself." Further to the left, a panoply of "peace" groups is all but in league with Islamists. Consider, for instance, QUIT!--Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism--a group that, in its hatred for Israel, curiously fails to notice that Tel Aviv is the only city in the Middle East that annually hosts a gay-pride parade.
An instinct for pacifism surely goes some way toward explaining the left's curious unwillingness to sign up for a war to defend its core values. A suspicion of black-and-white moral distinctions of the kind President Bush is fond of making about terrorism--a suspicion that easily slides into moral relativism--is another.
But there are deeper factors at work. One is appeasement: "Many Europeans feel that a confrontation with Islamism will give the Islamists more opportunities to recruit--that confronting evil is counterproductive," says Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born, former Dutch parliamentarian whose outspoken opposition to Islamism (and to Islam itself) forced her repeatedly into hiding and now into exile in the United States. "They think that by appeasing them--allowing them their own ghettoes, their own Muslim schools--they will win their friendship."
A second factor, she says, is the superficial confluence between the bugaboos of the Chomskyite left and modern-day Islamism. "Many social democrats have this stereotype that the corporate world, the U.S. and Israel are the real evil. And [since] Islamists are also against Israel and America, [social democrats] sense an alliance with them."
But the really "lethal mistake," she says, "is the confusion of Islam, which is a body of ideas, with ethnicity." Liberals especially are reluctant to criticize the content of Islam because they fear that it is tantamount to criticizing Muslims as a group, and is therefore almost a species of racism. Yet Muslims, she says, "are responsible for their ideas. If it is written in the Koran that you must kill apostates, kill the unbelievers, kill gays, then it is legitimate and urgent to say, 'If that is what your God tells you, you have to modify it.' "
A similar rethink may be in order among liberals and progressives. For whatever else distinguishes Islamism from liberalism, both are remarkably self-absorbed affairs, obsessed with maintaining the purity of their own values no matter what the cost. In the former case, the result too often is terror. In the latter, the ultimate risk is suicide, as the endless indulgence of "the other" obstructs the deeper need to preserve itself. Liberal beliefs--and the Rachel Newmans of the world--deserve to be protected and fought for. A liberalism that abandons its own defense to others does not, something liberals everywhere might usefully dwell on during this season of sad remembrance.
Mr. Stephens is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board. His column appears in the Journal Tuesdays.
"When I was 19, I moved to New York City. . . . If you had asked me to describe myself then, I would have told you I was a musician, an artist and, on a somewhat political level, a woman, a lesbian and a Jew. Being an American wouldn't have made my list. On Sept. 11, all that changed. I realized that I had been taking the freedoms I have here for granted. Now I have an American flag on my backpack, I cheer at the fighter jets as they pass overhead and I am calling myself a patriot."
-- Rachel Newman, "My Turn"
in Newsweek, Oct. 21, 2001