The Corner

Syria Debate: I Didn’t Miss the Totalitarian Angle; I Wrote the Book on It

There is not much with which to argue in Michael’s last salvo, but I do think I’m entitled to grouse a bit.

The subtitle of my last book (The Grand Jihad), which Michael has been characteristically kind in praising, is “How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.” My central thesis is that, while there have been periods of militant Islamic supremacism as long as there has been Islam, the most recent iteration is uniquely threatening due to two factors. First is the propagation of fundamentalist ideology by the unimaginable oil wealth of a few Islamic countries (mostly Saudi Arabia), amplified by the unprecedented communications capabilities of our age. Second is the alliance between Islamic supremacism and the revolutionary Left.

As Michael will recall, I took no small amount of guff over this, particularly from my usual allies on the Right. Some of it was just uninformed — the sort of thing you get from people who’ve heard that a provocative argument has been made but haven’t bothered to familiarize themselves with it (Are you saying Obama is a covert Muslim? That Obama wants to impose sharia law? That Obama supports al-Qaeda?). Some of it was the craven preening that has become too familiar: The opposition, having been nailed, is certain to fight back with its bread-and-butter, character assassination; so the brave conservative pundit — posing as Bill Buckley purging the Birchers — shows how thoughtful and nuanced he can be by fretting over the “Islamophobia” and ideological “extremism” he perceives in the suggestion that one’s political adversaries sympathize with the nation’s enemies. And finally, some of it was strategic: Many on the Right are, alas, heavily invested in the Islamic democracy project; I counter that this enterprise is not only a national-security mirage but a means by which the progressives who dominate U.S. foreign policy (in the State Department, the military brass, the intelligence community, and elsewhere in government) export not our constitutional culture of individual liberty but their preference for Big Government. (Three years ago, I wrote about “democracy building” as a pretext for spreading statism, after reading commanding general Stanley McChrystal’s outline of what I saw — and see — as the tragically flawed U.S. mission in Afghanistan.)

In any event, what matters with a book like The Grand Jihad is not whether it is ignored or dismissed by policymakers and their proponents in the commentariat. The question is whether it stands the test of time. As it happens, although the book came out in early 2010, someone who had read it would not have been surprised by anything that has happened in the last 15 months — during the Islamic ascendancy the mainstream press delusionally calls “the Arab Spring.”

Thus my quarrel with Michael: To read his latest, you would figure that so myopic has been my focus on the trees — i.e., my purported insistence that “it’s all about Islam” — I have missed the forest that Michael sees: the “full picture of the enemy alliance.” Oddly, Michael opines that it is too premature at this point to lay out that full picture; he provides only the following “hint”: “Hannah Arendt was extremely accurate when she wrote about ‘Totalitarianism.’”

Sorry, mi amigo, but you’re hinting at the arrival of a train that already left the station. I could offer dozens of examples from The Grand Jihad, but for now let’s just take one that seems relevant. In outlining the alliance between Barack Obama and Raila Odinga, the Marxist whose alliance with Kenyan Islamists helped drive that country into violent post-election rioting, I wrote that, beyond their mutual family ties in the Luo tribe, Obama and Odinga were joined together by a

second thread — and one, Hannah Arendt would caution, that is stronger even than tribal ties: the hold of ideology. . . . Obama and Odinga are Leftist ideologues, soul-mates in, and prisoners of, a flawed logic that revises the past and imposes the future, while incinerating the here and now. It is a totalitarian ideology that draws the Left irresistibly into alliance with Islamism and its cognate logic of submission.

Not to go on with too much of this, but chapter after chapter of The Grand Jihad expounds on both historical instances of cooperation between Islamic supremacists and the radical Left, as well as the rationale for why they occur. The rationale is straightforward: Both ideologies are totalitarian in the sense that they seek a central authority — whether it is a caliphate or, alternatively, what the political scientist Jacob Leib Talmon called a “totalitarian democracy” — for the purpose of controlling all aspects of life in a manner consistent with sharia or, alternatively, what Rousseau called “the General Will.” Indeed, I spent a full chapter on the startling parallels between the political philosophy of Rousseau (who admired Islam’s refusal to separate religion and the state) and the teachings of Sayyid Qutb, the most important Islamist thinker of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Much of Qutb’s oeuvre — e.g., Social Justice in Islam — reads as if it were written for Occupy Cairo).

With due respect to Michael, I have never focused on Islam as the only fact of significance. I have emphasized it as the most important fact on the ground in the Middle East because (a) it plainly is just that, and (b) contemporary policy makers ludicrously extol it as an asset in our dealings with Muslim countries when, in fact, it is a profound challenge, giving rise, as it naturally does, to an ideology that is hostile to the Western concept of liberty.

Naturally, as Michael rightly says, Islamic ideology cannot alone explain the alliances between Islamists and non-Muslim states like Venezuela and Russia. But far from contending otherwise, I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to understand and relate why these marriages of convenience arise. There are two reasons: (a) they always involve a common enemy (in contemporary geopolitics, the enemy is the West’s culture of individual liberty, best exemplified by the U.S. Constitution as originally understood), and (b) despite some sharp differences (e.g., women’s rights, gay rights, abortion rights), Islamic supremacists and the radical Left share an affinity for authoritarian government, state regulation of society down to the granular details, hostility toward belief systems that depart from their civic religion, and a disdain for free-market capitalism.

Finally, Michael is far too wise a thinker and historian for anyone to accuse him of oversimplification. I never suggested he is “an unfettered optimist about the power of freedom to defeat tyranny and evil cultures.” I said he is more optimistic than I am. I am more a skeptic than he is that mainstream Islam will evolve with more exposure to the West. Yet, I think we agree on the more important things: Any such evolution will take a long time (if it can happen at all); and, meantime, the West is ceding a disturbing amount of ground. The latter leads me to think devolution is at least as likely as evolution. And with the West paralyzed by self-doubt rather than confidently fighting back, I’d wager Michael has similar fears.

Moreover, while Michael does not focus exclusively on Iran, I think he overemphasizes it. And I say that as someone who agrees with him about the gravity of the threat. My point is that, as Michael knows better than anyone, history is not static.

Only a short time ago, dictators had a choke-hold on the Muslim Brotherhood and even more strident strains of Salafism. That rendered Iran — a sovereign state, and an important one — the unparalleled leader of Islamic revolutionary movements with global designs. Sunni terrorist outfits like al-Qaeda and Hamas turned to the Shiite mullahs because if you want to project power on the scale of a nation-state, state-sponsorship is imperative. Iran and its side-kick, Assad’s Syria, were close to the only game in town. (For simplicity’s sake, I’m ignoring Libya under the pre-reformed Qaddafi and the dangerous game the Saudis play of supporting extraterritorial jihadism as a safety-valve against internal uprisings.)

The “Arab Spring” is drastically changing things, and Brotherhood ideology is the catalyst. Iran’s anti-Americanism is old hat. The dynamic anti-American current in the region is Sunni Salafism. Again, that doesn’t mean Iran is any less dangerous. It just means Iran now has a srong competitor. As the autocrats wither, including pro-American regimes like Mubarak’s, they are replaced by Islamist regimes that draw on the loyalties of far more numerous Sunnis.

As this plays out, the historic and often savage rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites reemerges. That is seen with increasing clarity in Syria. Assad’s crucial former ally Turkey is now an opponent. Recep Erdogan took power nine years ago today, and has gradually but unmistakably shifted Turkey from a pro-West, pro-Israel stance to firm membership in (perhaps even leadership of) the Brotherhood camp. That lines Turkey up with other Brotherhood eminences: the Syrian Brotherhood, which is the backbone of the opposition; the new Brotherhood-dominated Egyptian government; Hamas, the Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch and another former Assad ally (due to its material dependence on Iran) which switched sides upon sensing which way the wind was blowing; and Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the Brotherhood’s leading jurist who has called for the Syrian regime’s overthrow and pronounced Assad a heretic — an ominous allegation since apostasy is a capital crime under sharia.

Five years ago, the fall of Assad would have seemed like nothing more than a clear-cut defeat for Iran, and thus a significant plus for American national security. Now, it would just be the next domino in a juggernaut of Sunni Islamic supremacism. Because that juggernaut is aligned with the global Left — prominently including the Obama administration — it is a challenge at least equal to Iran. After all, it is not Iran but the Brotherhood that is changing the face of Europe. And it is not Iran but the Brotherhood, through its satellite organizations and influence over the multinational Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, that is responsible for the encroachments against our liberties that Michael acknowledges.

It is not as easy to say today as it was a short time ago that what is bad for the mullahs is good for us.

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