Opening Western Eyes to a View of Islam
by David Schoenbaum
New York Times
August 28, 2002
MILITANT ISLAM REACHES AMERICA
By Daniel Pipes
309 pages. W.W. Norton. $25.95.
There was a time when America was actually rather popular in what we now call the Islamic world. But that was a time when America exported oil, few Americans had ever seen a Muslim and vice versa.
Then came World War II and the historical equivalent of continental drift. Europe receded, by choice and otherwise. Post-colonial nation builders jostled in the newly opened space. Israel was created. The cold war overflowed its European banks. Hot wars proliferated. Populations soared. Economies scrambled and failed to keep up. America ascended to megapower and learned to love imported oil. Globalization spread like kudzu.
Meanwhile America acquired an increasingly visible and audible Muslim minority, part diaspora from all over the Islamic world, part African-American in growing numbers. Then, out of a literally clear blue sky, came Sept. 11.
"Here and now begins a new era in world history, and you can say that you were there," said Goethe of the Battle of Valmy in 1792, the first important engagement in the French Revolutionary Wars. Millions of Americans think of Sept. 11 in much the same way.
Wrong, says Daniel Pipes in this anthology of random pieces going back to 1990. That Tuesday from hell was not the beginning, let alone the end of history. Nor should the hijackers, their shadowy handlers and Osama bin Laden be taken for the authentic voice of Islam, the religion and civilization, with 1.3 billion adherents and nearly 1,400 years of history. On the contrary, says Mr. Pipes. What hit us on Sept. 11 was Islamism, the ideology, a product of relatively recent civilizational discontents in a swath of the world where a glorious past has somehow led to a futureless present.
He estimates the ideology's hard core at 70,000 in some 50 countries. To this he adds a penumbra of fellow travelers, accounting for 10 to 15 percent of the world's Muslims.
As a professional historian and trained Arabist, he regards Islamism as a global menace. But he finds its zeal, animus, organization and technology thoroughly modern and familiar, despite the conspicuous display of beards, caftans and turbans.
For Mr. Pipes the Islamist version of Islam is just another modernizing anachronism. To him its churchlike hierarchy, quasi-papal ayatollahs, quasi-sabbatarian Friday, even unexpected hints of feminism, look remarkably like unacknowledged Westernisms. The real analogues of Islamism, in Mr. Pipes's view, are 20th-century products, too: the great totalitarian heresies, fascism and Communism.
One of the book's most interesting pieces compares Western responses to Islamism and Communism. Mr. Pipes makes a strong case that Left and Right have approached both with impressive consistency. But sturdy, well-connected neo-conservative that he is, he argues just as forthrightly that the Left has been consistently wrong.
His policy guidelines are accordingly simple. Respect and support the moderate Muslims, who are Islam's silent majority. Don't push democracy where Islamists are likely to win. Don't try to appease. It can't be done.
Well, maybe. But is it that simple? Did we do ourselves a favor during the Reagan and first Bush administrations by cozying up to secular Iraq during its war with clerical Iran, and looking away when a bankrupt Algerian military dictatorship canceled an election for fear of losing it, at a time when we were incidentally insisting on free elections in post-Communist Europe?
And aren't there a few self-fulfilling propositions here? Does one size really fit all? Or are we creating solidarity by denying differences between natural adversaries?
And hasn't Islamist success something to do with the failure of secularizing regimes, from liberal to fascist, in a variety of Arab and Muslim countries, going back at least a century? And if so, might not some of the hostility toward us have to do with our support for some of these regimes?
And haven't regimes we call moderate helped Islamists seize the oppositional high ground by stifling alternative opposition: for example, the disgraceful treatment of the Egyptian-American sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim by President Mubarak of Egypt, or of Malaysia's former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad?
On the other hand Mr. Pipes also notes that the "war on terror" is confusingly, even dangerously open-ended, when our war is really with radical, politicized Islamic fundamentalism; that we are not engaged in a "clash of civilizations," because Islamists are as dangerous to fellow Muslims as they are to us; and that the containment policy that served us so well in the cold war can work again.