[Left vs. Right:] Same Difference
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
[N.B.: The following reflects what the author submitted, and not exactly what was published. To obtain the precise text of what was printed, please check the original place of publication.]
The Western confrontation with fundamentalist Islam has in some ways come to resemble the great ideological battle of the twentieth century, that between Marxism-Leninism and liberal democracy. Not only do Americans frame the discussion about Iran and Algeria much as they did the earlier one about the Soviet Union and China, but they also differ among themselves on the question of fundamentalist Islam roughly along the same lines as they did on the Cold War. Liberals say co-opt the radicals. Conservatives say confront them. As usual, the conservatives are right.
At first glance, how to deal with fundamentalist Islam appears to be a discussion unrelated to anything that's come before. Islam is a religion, not an ideology, so how can the U.S. government formulate a policy toward it? A closer look reveals that while Islam is indeed a faith, its fundamentalist variant is a form of political ideology. Fundamentalists may be defined, most simply, as those Muslims who agree with the slogan that "Islam is the solution." When it comes to politics in particular, they said that Islam has all the answers. The Malaysian leader Anwar Ibrahim spoke for fundamentalist Muslims everywhere when he asserted some years ago that "We are not socialist, we are not capitalist, we are Islamic." For the fundamentalists, Islam is primarily an "-ism," a belief system about ordering power and wealth.
Much distinguishes fundamentalism from Islam as it was traditionally practiced, including this emphasis on public life (rather than faith and personal piety); its leadership by schoolteachers and engineers (not religious scholars); and its Westernized quality (for example, whereas Muslims traditionally did not consider Friday to be a Sabbath, fundamentalists have turned it into precisely that, imitating the Jewish Saturday and Christian Sunday). In brief, fundamentalism represents a thoroughly modern effort to come to terms with the challenges of modernization.
The great majority of Muslims disagree with the premises of fundamentalist Islam, and a small number do so vocally. A few, like Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin, have acquired global reputations, but most toil more obscurely. When a newly elected deputy to the Jordanian parliament last fall called fundamentalist Islam "one of the greatest dangers facing our society" and compared it to "a cancer" that "has to be surgically removed," she spoke for many Muslims.
As an ideology, fundamentalist Islam can claim none of the sanctity that Islam the religion enjoys. While remaining respectful of the Islamic faith, Americans can in good conscience criticize fundamentalism.
In responding to fundamentalist Islam, Americans tend to divide along familiar liberal and conservative lines. More striking yet, the same individuals hold roughly the same positions that they did vis-à-vis that other quasi-religious ideology, Marxism-Leninism. Liberal and conservative positions live on, with the same individuals still arguing over roughly the same issues. A left-wing Democrat like George McGovern advocates a soft line, now as then. A right-wing Republican like Jesse Helms argues for a tough line, now as then. Consider the following parallels:
Conciliation or Confrontation?
Summing up, the Left is more sanguine than the Right about both communism and fundamentalist Islam. It's hard to imagine a conservative calling the Ayatollah Khomeini "some kind of saint," as did Jimmy Carter's ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young. It's about as unlikely to hear a liberal warning, along with France's Defense Minister François Leotard, that "Islamic nationalism in its terrorist version is as dangerous today as National Socialism was in the past." On the scholarly level, a liberal democrat like John Esposito publishes a book titled The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? and concludes that the threat is but a myth. In complete contrast, Walter McDougall, the Pulitzer-prize-winning historian and sometime assistant to Richard Nixon, sees Russia helping the West in "holding the frontier of Christendom against its common enemy," the Muslim world.
These contrary analyses lead, naturally, to very different prescriptions for U.S. policy. The Left believes that dialogue with the other side, communist or fundamentalist Muslim, has several advantages: it helps us understand their legitimate concerns, signal them that we mean them no harm, and reduce mutual hostility. Beyond dialogue, the West can show good will by reducing or even eliminating our military capabilities. Roughly speaking, this is the Clinton Administration position. In Algeria, for instance, it hopes to defuse a potential explosion by urging the regime to bring in fundamentalist leaders who reject terrorism, thereby isolating the violent extremists.
The Right has little use for dialogue and unilateral disarmament. Communists and fundamentalists being invariably hostile to our way of life, we should show not empathy but resolve; not good will but will power. And what better way to display these intentions than with armed strength? Now as then, conservatives think in terms of containment and rollback. For conservatives, Algeria fits into the tradition of friendly tyrants-states where the rulers treat their own population badly but who help the United States fend off a radical ideology. It makes sense to stand by Algiers (or Cairo) just as it earlier made sense to stick by Saigon or Pinochet in Chile.
Of course, the schema presented here does not align perfectly. In its confusion, the Reagan Administration searched for "moderates" in Iran (an effort led by none other than Oliver North). The Bush Administration enunciated a soft policy toward fundamentalism. And the Clinton Administration has pursued a more resolute policy toward Iran than either of its predecessors. Interests sometimes seem to count more than ideology. The liberal Clinton Administration speaks out against a crackdown on fundamentalists in Algeria, where the stakes are low for Americans, but accepts tough measures in Egypt, where the United States has substantial interests. The conservative French government bemoans the crackdown in Egypt (not so important for it) but encourages tough measures in Algeria (very important).
Still, the basic pattern is clear. And as the lines of debate sort themselves out, the two sides are likely to stick more consistently to their characteristic positions. This suggests that while Marxism-Leninism and fundamentalist Islam are very different phenomena, Westerners respond in similar ways to ideological challenges.
They do so owing to a profound divide in outlook. American liberals believe in the peaceful and cooperative nature of mankind; when confronted with aggression and violence, they tend to assume it is motivated by a just cause, such as socio-economic deprivation or exploitation by foreigners. Anger cannot be false, especially if accompanied by the high-minded goals of communists or fundamentalists. Less innocently, conservatives know the evil that lurks in the men's hearts. They understand the sometimes important roles of fanaticism and hatred. Just because an ideology has utopian aims does not mean that its adherents have lofty motives or generous ambitions.
Few readers of the National Review will be surprised to learn that the Left's soft approach to fundamentalist Islam predominates in Washington, in the universities, the churches, and the media. Indeed, to recall one of the Left's favorite phrases, it has become the hegemonic discourse in the United States. On the other side stand nothing but a handful of scholars, some commentators and politicians, and the great common sense of the American people. Americans know an opponent when they see him, and are not fooled by the Left's fancy arguments. That common sense prevailed in the Cold War and no doubt will suffice yet again to wrestle down the follies of the New Class.
Reader comments (3) on this item
Comment on this item
Support Daniel Pipes' work with a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes