Monthly Archives: January 2011

Can Tunisia win against both autocrats and theocrats?

The recent grassroots uprising against the government in Tunisia, unprecedented in recent Arab history, has been the source of an enormous outpouring of both hope and fear throughout the region. While almost all Arab political leaders have life terms, ex-President Zein El-Abedine Ben Ali was basically chased out of his country and his office by a largely unorganized, spontaneous and diverse outpouring of outrage from a very wide segment of the population.

The wildest hopes are that “people’s power” will now spread throughout the Arab world, bringing down a series of autocrats and dictatorships. It’s certainly possible that the Tunisian experience could be, if not replicated, at least influential in some neighboring countries. Algeria, Libya, and to some extent Egypt, are all ripe for similar outpourings of popular outrage. Morocco seems somewhat more stable, and the Southwest Asian part of the Arab world seems even further removed from a potential ripple effect for the foreseeable future.

But what exactly is happening in Tunisia is not at all clear. Ben Ali has gone, probably for good. However, at the time of writing this article, many figures from the old regime have retained positions in the new transitional government, including Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, although thousands are protesting for his resignation.

The rhetoric of most of the key figures in the protests, particularly the General Union of Tunisian Workers, has suggested that their aim is neither limited to removing a few individual politicians, nor achieving a social revolution. There has been a general welcoming of the transitional government’s announcement of a “total break” with the Ben Ali era, new elections, and reforms such as the end of censorship, the legalization of political parties, and the release of political prisoners.

What the transitional government is promising is a series of wide-ranging liberal reforms and democratization – precisely what Arab liberals and centrists, and many of those who took part in the uprising, say they want. The question is whether or not they will follow through on any of this, or simply slide back into a form of modified autocracy.

It’s possible to view Ben Ali as simply an incompetent dictator, too rigid and inflexible to accommodate discontent when it started to overflow. But by most Arab standards, Tunisia actually permitted a fairly robust civil society, in spite of the dictatorship. Other Arab regimes could unfortunately conclude that Ben Ali was actually too liberal and allowed excessive space beyond government-controlled structures or the difficult-to-contain religious sphere. They might decide that more and not less repression is the proper vaccination against the Tunisian uprising virus.

Another danger is that whatever reforms the transitional regime actually follows through on, including the promised elections, these will fail to restore stability, so that the growing power vacuum might ultimately be filled by Islamists or other extremists. If this is the ultimate outcome of the Tunisian upheaval, it will probably terrify both Arab governments and mainstream societies, again increasing the likelihood of ever-greater repression in the region and strongly discouraging other Arab peoples to emulate the Tunisian experiment.

If events in Tunisia are to have a lasting, positive regional impact, it is vital that they be driven by the principles of peaceful change, pluralism and democratic inclusivity. This would prove the viability of liberal, democratic reform without violence. Such reform would also demonstrate that Arab political space can be opened up without the seizure of power by Islamists. And it should begin the development of an inclusive political system starting with an election – perhaps, as some are suggesting, in as little as 45 days – for which the country may not quite be ready, but which should pave the way for a regular transfer of power through routine voting.

The people of Tunisia, without any central leadership, rose up and asserted their status and rights as citizens. The concept of citizenship, with interlocking rights and responsibilities, is not part of contemporary Arab culture, where ordinary people are generally seen as subjects to be managed. But now Tunisians are demanding political pluralism, social inclusivity and the respect of individual rights based on citizenship.

The Tunisian rebellion appears to have been driven by principles essential for the development of a moderate, centrist Arab reform movement that replaces an old order that is moribund, if not one that is already dead, and avoids a new order controlled by religious fanatics. These principles are democratic and pluralistic political reform; inclusivity and individual rights for citizens; and the peaceful transition of power through elections and legitimate, unarmed political engagement, including nonviolent protest.

If Tunisians succeed in seizing this moment to push forward those three principles, even gradually, and ridding themselves of the old dictatorship while fending off a grab for power by Islamists, they will have finally given the Arab world a desperately-needed third way. They would prove it is possible for an Arab society to reject both autocrats and theocrats in favor of liberals, centrists and democrats.

The King hearing on “Muslim radicalization” and moral clarity on terrorism

New York Rep. Peter King is planning to launch his chairmanship of the House Homeland Security Committee with a hearing into “Muslim radicalization” in the United States, the process by which Muslim Americans become radicalized to the point of supporting international Islamist terrorism or, worse still, committing or attempting to commit, terrorist acts here at home against our own country. It’s a very serious topic and a good subject for an important congressional hearing, but there is every reason to fear that this may be a counterproductive rather than useful exercise, possibly disastrously so. So far we don’t know much about the potential date, content or witness list of the hearing, although Steven Emerson is enraged at his apparent exclusion (more on this at the end of this essay), but King’s upcoming appearance on a new TV show hosted by probably the most extreme anti-Muslim fanatic in the United States, Brigitte Gabriel (who claims things like “Arabs have no souls”), about whom I have written on the Ibishblog in the past, is the worst possible indication about where this all might be going. The interview was taped on November 10 and will be broadcast on February 5.

The recent massacre in Tucson by Jared Lee Loughner might, one would have thought, have reminded King and others that there are many different kinds of Americans who can get radicalized to the point of violence by an almost endless plethora of ideologies, including left-wing radicalism like the weathermen of old, environmentalism, anti-abortion fanaticism, homophobia, white supremacy, Christian identity gobbledygook, black nationalism, KKK ideology and, of course, the latest addition to the paranoid and sometimes violent style of American politics, the tea partyers.

While this is not to say that there isn’t a growing problem with ad hoc radicalization, especially through the Internet, of young Western Muslims, including in the United States, and a real potential for violence as a consequence, it is to say that there are a lot of other dangers and pretending that this is the only source of potential mayhem and violence, or even the main one currently facing our country from an internal, domestic source, seems particularly misguided after Tucson. But King has been on the hobbyhorse about “disloyal” Muslim Americans for a long time, and now that he has his chairmanship, he has his bully pulpit too.

But King and many of the other most vocal alarmists about homegrown Islamist terrorists and the “Islamic threat,” expressed in a generalized way that promotes fear and hatred of the Muslim American community in general and indiscriminately, are carrying some serious baggage with which they will, ultimately, have to deal. In fact, a lot of them have a history of sympathy for and support of terrorist organizations they either identified with ethnically or ideologically, or whose targets they despised enough to welcome or at least defend their terrorism. In other words, there is a very long history of double standards on the question of terrorism, and most assuredly a lack of moral clarity, from not only Chairman King but many of his friends and supporters in this “Muslim radicalization” movement.

Let’s begin with King himself. In fact, he has a very long history as an ardent supporter of the IRA and its American front organization, Noraid. While his stance on the IRA toughened in 2005 and he became a convert to supporting the peace process and disbanding the organization, historically his support was pretty unequivocal. As the New York Sun noted:

He forged links with leaders of the IRA and Sinn Fein in Ireland, and in America he hooked up with Irish Northern Aid, known as Noraid, a New York based group that the American, British, and Irish governments often accused of funneling guns and money to the IRA. At a time when the IRA’s murder of Lord Mountbatten and its fierce bombing campaign in Britain and Ireland persuaded most American politicians to shun IRA-support groups, Mr. King displayed no such inhibitions. He spoke regularly at Noraid protests and became close to the group’s publicity director, the Bronx lawyer Martin Galvin, a figure reviled by the British. Mr. King’s support for the IRA was unequivocal. In 1982, for instance, he told a pro-IRA rally in Nassau County: “We must per can of the pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry.”

The Sun also pointed out that, “Much of the conventional weaponry and a great deal of the money necessary for IRA violence came from Irish-American sympathizers. Mr. King’s advocacy of the IRA’s cause encouraged that flow and earned him the deep-seated hostility of the British and Irish governments.”

There couldn’t, after all, have been anything philosophically in common between the IRA, an avowedly Marxist, globalist and internationalist terrorist movement, and the conservative Republican congressman from New York. It seems a pretty fair bet that the only thing drawing King to Noraid and other IRA front organizations which he was so enthusiastic about was pure ethnic tribalism. He’s an Irishman; he wanted Ireland united and entirely free of any form of British control; and if terrorism was part of the strategy, so be it. By any means necessary, as they say.

This history makes it especially difficult to stomach his blanket condemnations against the Arab and Muslim American communities generally when he has such a specific record of supporting what was at the time, by any conceivable definition, a terrorist organization. I suppose one could argue that the IRA was at war with the United Kingdom and not the United States, so the element of disloyalty is mitigated. Well, the same logic could speciously be applied to supporters of Hamas and Hezbollah, who would also claim to war with only Israel but not the United States. This accusation of disloyalty because of support for terrorism would have to be then reserved those rare supporters of Al Qaeda and other so-called “Salafist-Jihadist” groups that have openly declared war on both the United States and the governments and societies of the entire Arab and Muslim world, and have actually and deliberately attacked American interests directly. However, numerous organizations around the world that have never directly or deliberately attacked American interests have been placed on the State Department terrorism list from its outset and remain there. It’s partly a matter of cooperation with foreign governments that feel threatened by those organizations and partly a recognition that certain acts constitute terrorism no matter who the culprit or victims might be.

And, it must be acknowledged that the IRA was never itself actually placed on the State Department “designated foreign terrorist organizations” list, which was first published in the late 1990s. That list was specifically pursuant to the 1996 “antiterrorism and effective death penalty act,” which made otherwise lawful “material support” for organizations to be designated as foreign terrorist groups by the State Department a serious felony. However, in earlier reports, the State Department described the IRA quite accurately as a “deadly terrorist group unconcerned about innocent bystanders,” and it was formally considered a terrorist organization by the United States in the same way that Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and many other leftist and insurgent groups during the Cold War had been. In the end, there can be no doubt that it was largely political pressure from King and numerous other politically powerful Irish-Americans that kept the IRA, although not all of it’s more extreme splinter groups, off the formal, criminalized State Department foreign terrorist organization material support list once it was issued in the late 90s.

In other words, this all reeks of hypocrisy of the worst variety, and of the idea that terrorism by my friends is okay or at least understandable, but it makes your friends, or at your least compatriots or coreligionists, the biggest villains in the entire world, unspeakable demons outside the realm of normal humanity, nothing less than homo sacer.

Another example of this outrageous double-standard, in which my terrorists friends are just fine but other terrorists are uniquely evil, is the growing constituency in the United States, especially in Congress of all places, in favor of the bizarre and violent Iranian terrorist cult, the so-called Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK). It’s been on the formal US State Department designated list of foreign terrorist organizations from the outset, because of numerous terrorist acts inside Iran including car bombings, assassinations and other atrocities.

Prominent American MEK defenders or supporters include former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, and anti-terrorism advisor to President George W. Bush, Francis Townsend. Self-appointed terrorism experts such as Daniel Pipes are also big fans. In Congress, Sen. Sam Brownback, and Reps. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Bob Filner (probably the most enthusiastic leader of the effort), Dana Rohrabacher, Ted Poe, Judy Chu, Mike Coffman, Lacy Clay and Edolphus Towns, among others, have urged its removal from the terrorism list.

The MEK’s psychopathic ideological combination of Marxism, feminism and Islamism is primarily characterized by a bizarre personality cult centered around Maryam Rajavi, but the organization may well be led in practice by its former central public figure, her husband Massoud Rajavi. Strongly supported by the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the MEK was largely based in Iraq and conducted numerous terrorist attacks in Iran aimed at the regime, and the society in general. Since the American invasion of Iraq, its main redoubt has been Camp Ashraf in Diyala province. The United States has been hard-pressed to decide what to do about the MEK in Camp Ashraf. Iran has repeatedly accused the United States of using the MEK, operating out of that base, to conduct attacks inside Iran, but has provided virtually no evidence to demonstrate any such thing. But there’s no doubt that the United States has used the MEK as a source of intelligence on Iranian realities and activities, and, while disarming it, has also provided it protection within the camp. Consistent speculation has held that the MEK is regarded as a bargaining chip by the United States, and possibly by the new Iraqi government, vis-à-vis Iran, which has traditionally regarded it as its most threatening armed domestic enemy.

It would be almost impossible to overstate the sinister characteristics of the MEK’s ideology, which reminds me more of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge than anything else I can think of. Rajavi claims mystical powers and connections to prophets and messiahs; has instructed her followers to divorce all of their spouses and maintains an extremely bizarre attitude towards gender, personal and sexual relations; conducts cult-like, quasi-Maoist, “self confession” sessions in which members are encouraged to confess their supposed flaws and sins; and the group is said to practice torture and various abuses against its members in order to maintain organizational discipline. Many reports would suggest that’s the least of it, and that while we may not be dealing here with the world’s weirdest organization — that title probably belongs to the “Lord’s Resistance Army,” a Christian fundamentalist gang of absolute lunatics in Uganda — it’s almost certainly somewhere in the very top tier. (In 1977, the virtuoso Spanish surrealist film director Luis Buñuel probably thought he was making a great joke by naming a terrorist organization in his final masterpiece, That Obscure Object of Desire, “The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus,” but by 2011 it distressingly doesn’t sound quite as ridiculous anymore as it must have then.)

However, since the MEK’s terrorist actions and political agitation are aimed at overthrowing the properly despised government in Tehran — although their own rule would undoubtedly be almost unimaginably worse — certain American public figures, commentators and members of Congress have begun to champion their cause. That they are plainly completely insane and also terrorist by any definition of the term is beside the point. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, or at least not my enemy. If they want to use terrorism and other despicable tactics to destabilize the government in Tehran, so be it. Let’s take them off the terrorism list, if not hold fundraising events and provide material support once, or indeed even before (as it can be argued a number of these people already have), they are removed from it.

And then there’s the little matter of the anti-Castro Cuban terrorists who have been the subject of so much public support from prominent Americans over many years. Two names come to mind in particular: Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles. Bosch is the leader of the so-called Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations, which the FBI has described as “an anti-Castro terrorist umbrella organization.” It is not disputed that in 2008 Bosch told Dade County criminal attorney Stewart Adelstein that he was responsible for bombing Cubana Flight 455, a civilian Douglas DC-8 traveling from Barbados and Jamaica containing 48 passengers and 25 crew, resulting in 73 fatalities and no survivals. Bosch, Carriles and two others were tried in Venezuela, where the attack was apparently planned, with two men sentenced to 20-year terms, Bosch released on a technicality, and Carriles fleeing the county for Miami while awaiting sentencing. Bosch defended his brutal terrorism with the infamous claim that, “All of Castro’s planes are warplanes.” Sound familiar? To Middle Eastern ears, it certainly should.

Once back in Miami in 1987, Bosch was held for six months on a parole violation and then released, where he has been living unmolested ever since. The campaign to pardon Bosch was led by the new incoming House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and her ally and then political campaign manager, and future governor of Florida and presidential brother, Jeb Bush. Ros-Lehtinen reportedly helped organize an “Orlando Bosch Day,” of all things, in his support. She has also defended one Velentin Hernández, a Cuban exile convicted of murdering Luciano Nieves who was advocating negotiations with the Castro regime. Her attitude towards violence against objectionable political leaders was characterized by her statement to the BBC that, “I welcome the opportunity of having anyone assassinate Fidel Castro and any leader who is oppressing the people.” She claimed that the filmmakers had doctored her statements, but releases of the original unedited recordings demonstrated her calling at least twice for the assassination of Castro, and confirmed the veracity of the original quote.

As for Posada Carriles, AKA “Bambi,” a former CIA operative, he has been convicted in absentia of the Flight 455 bombing, a series of bomb attacks mainly in 1997 on fashionable Cuban nightclubs and hotels, and various other crimes including the attempted assassination of Castro in Panama in 2000. There is virtually no doubt that Carriles is an unrepentant and habitual terrorist, and has plausibly claimed that Jorge Mas Canosa, head of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), was well aware of his activities but that the two agreed never to discuss them. To say that Carriles has never been properly investigated, charged or held to account by the US authorities, which it is bound by international treaties (particularly the 1971 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation) to do, would be an understatement. He has been briefly held on immigration charges, but was released in 2007, and a judge has ruled that he may not be extradited to Venezuela, where he is wanted for some of these crimes, on the grounds that he may be tortured there. Special rendition for some, special protection for others. The US has sought to deport him, but unsurprisingly no country will accept such an individual. Suffice it to say that some terrorists go to Guantánamo Bay, and some don’t.

Carriless still faces charges of immigration fraud and of lying to US authorities about his criminal activities, but this is in the context of his potential deportation process, not a full-blown criminal investigation into his apparently extensive terrorist career. And while CANF denies all knowledge of and involvement in his crimes, in 1997 the organization issued a statement that has been characterized as “supporting un-conditionally all terrorist attacks against Cuba,” and its chairman at the time, Francisco Hernandez, stated that “We do not think of these as terrorist actions”. Of course not. Meanwhile, Carriless openly boasts of his participation in the 1997 bombing campaign and merely faces immigration charges and is not, as far as I can tell, incarcerated in any form at the moment.

The point is not that Peter King, the MEK defenders, or Rep. Ross Lehtinen are fans of terrorism, should be held in any kind of contempt or subject to federal investigation or any other aspersions against their characters. These facts should not be held against them as human beings or as political leaders. But there is an important point to be made, which is that it is extremely difficult for any human being to hold to a single standard that opposes terrorism in all its forms: the use by, at the very, least non-state — and many would argue also state — actors of attacks on civilian targets in order to achieve political goals. It’s very easy to get worked up about people who use these despicable tactics against one’s own country or one’s own friends, relatives, co-religionists or compatriots. It’s also very easy to rationalize the unfortunate necessity, or perhaps understandable if deplorable excesses, of such actions by those whose causes, or sometimes merely identities, one sympathizes or affiliates with. There is much more to be said about the King hearings as more becomes known about them. Right now, it doesn’t look good because Rep. King has long held a jaundiced view of the Muslim American community generally as essentially disloyal or at least insufficiently loyal. He’s wrong about that, as I’ll demonstrate in a future posting very soon.

There’s also the question of who is going to be testifying, and not. Self-appointed terrorism expert and chronic errorist Steven Emerson (who blamed the first World Trade Center bombing on Serbs when it fact it was Islamists, and then blamed the Timothy McVeigh bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City on Islamists when they had nothing to do with it) apparently is not. He and his supporters have tried to imply that he somehow anticipated or predicted the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but a review of his work up to that point shows nothing of the kind: he did warn that there was a growing movement in support of Muslim extremism in the United States, but nothing I can find (admittedly I haven’t been able to bring myself to an exhaustive reading of all of his ramblings) in his pre-9/11 work suggests any understanding of the kind of international Al Qaeda scheme dreamed up in Afghanistan, plotted in Hamburg, organized in various parts of the United States and funded from various as yet to be fully determined sources. In other words, he was as unprepared for such an assault as everybody else even though he was raising a ruckus about a rather different sort of Muslim extremist. There are one or two people who could plausibly claim to have anticipated the 9/11 attacks, particularly Rick Rescorla, but not Emerson.

Emerson’s bizarre and angry letter to King, which is worth reading merely as an indication of his emotional condition and questionable self-opinion, protesting the fact that he was not going to be included in the list of witnesses can only be regarded as a good thing. That doesn’t mean that King is necessarily going to be presenting a fair hearing representing multiple and contending different points of view; allowing those who would severely criticize the American Muslim community in general and unfair terms to be pitted against Muslim Americans who can contradict these claims with eloquence and veracity, or disgruntled former law enforcement officials or Bush administration appointees and other opponents of the Obama administration to use the opportunity to score political points, but also with a fair hearing given to currently serving law enforcement and counterterrorism officials or Obama administration policymakers. That’s what a fair hearing would look like: panels of credible individuals from different positions and perspectives making their cases respectively. King may, in fact, produce such a hearing, and Emerson’s exclusion is certainly a good sign, but forgive us for not holding our breaths.

But one thing that the buildup to the King hearings demonstrates is that the challenge for all of us — Arab and Muslim Americans; Irish-Americans; Cuban-Americans; Iranian Americans; and those who hate, possibly with the best of reasons, regimes such as the ones in Havana and Tehran — is to maintain a simple, single standard when it comes to terrorism: attacks deliberately targeting civilians for political purposes are unacceptable. It’s not a defensible position that my friends and relatives get to do this because of their special circumstances whereas yours don’t. There is no moral clarity in distinguishing between the legal, moral and political status of what are obviously terrorist organizations or acts on the grounds of agreement with their political goals, or alleged lack of alternatives.

Inconsistency, and indeed hypocrisy, from those who have been most angrily pointing the finger at entire communities rather than specifically those Arab and Muslim Americans who have been sympathetic and occasionally even materially supportive of Islamist terrorists (and who should be criticized and, when warranted, prosecuted for that) is simply not acceptable. A good long look in the mirror of those who had, or still have, no problem with the IRA, the MEK, and the likes of Orlando Bosch and Luis Carriless is essential if there is to be any hope of clarity on the question of terrorism as a legal, moral and ethical matter. If it’s simply a tactic that we are happy or at least willing to see employed by our friends or against our enemies, then let us be honest and say so openly. But if we are really and actually sincerely against terrorism — and I am against it in all its forms by whoever carries it out and for whatever cause — then let us be clear, consistent and honest about that, for goodness sake. Otherwise questions regarding radicalization, terrorism, political violence, extremism, etc. will merely be exercises in political grandstanding, point-scoring and demagoguery. They will make matters worse rather than better, and make our country less rather than more secure.

Good News From the Middle East (Really) – (with Jeffrey Goldberg)

It has lately become the accepted wisdom that the Middle East peace process is dead, finished, kaput. This belief has been reinforced by Al Jazeera’s release this week of some 1,600 documents that are said to describe the inside workings of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2008.

The arguments claiming that the peace process is dead come from all corners: Some contend that the Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank, is ineffectual or illegitimate. Some say the asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians is simply too great for a genuine compromise. Some insist the conflict is driven by unabated anti-Semitic incitement on the part of the Palestinians, or by irredeemable Israeli racism.

Other arguments are more specific. Some analysts feel that the real problem is that the Palestine Liberation Organization has become trapped by the Obama administration’s quest for a settlement freeze, which has prevented direct negotiations with Israel. Still another argument points out that Gaza, which has no future independent of the rest of Palestine, remains under the boot of the brutal fundamentalists of Hamas, rendering the P.L.O. incapable of delivering a final status agreement for the whole of the Palestinian people.

It is also argued that the threat of a nuclear Iran, and the support to Hamas and other extremists provided by Tehran, makes a deal impossible. And many observers have noted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, perched atop a governing coalition that is both internally argumentative and habitually intransigent, has not provided much confidence in the chances of even a provisional compromise, especially as settlers continue to build in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

There are large elements of truth to many of these observations. Yet there are other, more heartening, trends that have gone largely unnoticed. And there are indeed palatable steps that both the Israelis and the Palestinians could take, separately but simultaneously — call it joint unilateralism — that could help revive the peace process.

We tend to forget, amid the welter of commentary about Palestinian incitement and Israeli belligerence, that we have recently seen startling shifts in both Israeli and Palestinian attitudes on the need for compromise. The Palestinian Authority government, led by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, two of the most conscientious and sober-minded leaders the Palestinian people have had, continues to push forward a remarkable state-building program, and has been innovative in working against violence and incitement.

In Israel, the shift is also startling. Prime Minister Netanyahu — the leader of the Likud Party, which was previously the guardian of the ideology of territorial maximalism — has openly endorsed the creation of an independent Palestine. A majority of Knesset members plainly realize the necessity of a two-state solution. (Even Israel’s truculent foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has said that he was “ready to quit my settlement home to make peace.”)

Mr. Netanyahu, in a quiet way, has also encouraged a greater normalization of life on the West Bank. On his watch, the overall pace of settlement growth has slowed, especially when compared with previous Labor Party-led governments during the years of the Oslo peace process. He allowed the Palestinian flag to be raised in his private residence during a formal meeting with Mr. Abbas, and now employs the diplomatic term “West Bank” instead of the biblical term “Judea and Samaria.” He has also condemned an initiative offered by a group of Orthodox rabbis that sought to forbid Jews from selling or renting homes to non-Jews.

But it is on the Palestinian side that change has been the most notable. Gaza, of course, remains an intractable problem, since no peace treaty will end the conflict so long as Hamas is in power and loyal to the uncompromising Muslim Brotherhood ideology it espouses.

The West Bank, however, has lately been the scene of undeniably impressive developments. The new, highly professional Palestinian Authority security forces have restored order in formerly anarchic cities like Jenin and Nablus. The resulting calm has spurred a high level of investment and improved the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. It is almost impossible for those of us who saw firsthand the violence and chaos of the intifada that began in 2000 to quite believe the extent of positive change in the cities of the West Bank.

It is, in part, the high level of Palestinian security cooperation with Israel — involving intelligence sharing and on-the-ground measures — that has reduced violence so significantly. According to Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, 2010 was Israel’s most terror-free year in a decade. This has prompted Israel to remove many checkpoints from roads used by Palestinians, allowing for greater mobility, which also encourages economic growth. (The calm has also helped spur Israel’s economy to new heights.) Still, Israeli incursions into Palestinian Authority-controlled territory have been damaging to the authority, and should be carried out only for essential security reasons, not political ones.

The Palestinian Authority in the last three years has completed more than 1,700 community development programs across the West Bank, and built 120 schools, three hospitals and 50 health clinics. Prime Minister Fayyad has created what is probably the most transparent public finance system in the Arab world. The court system is being reformed (though it is still susceptible to corruption) and it has seen a jump in the number of criminal prosecutions. Around 1,000 miles of roads have been paved and 850 miles of water pipes have been installed. The Palestinians of the West Bank are finally beginning to build their state.

But this project is as fragile as it is vital for the international community, and especially for Israel. Its future as a Jewish democratic state depends on the creation of a peaceful, democratic and stable Palestinian state by its side.

There are a number of steps that Israel could take to help Palestinian moderates. They are, in the main, not overly onerous, and not irreversible should Israel’s security be newly threatened. But they could have a galvanizing effect on the attitudes of Palestinians who doubt the possibility of reaching a two-state solution.

Mr. Netanyahu, who acknowledges the effectiveness of the Palestinian security forces, could allow these forces to develop advanced counterterrorism capacities, which they do not now possess. This would carry some obvious risks, but also some obvious benefits: the sine qua non of governance is the provision of basic security, and meaningful security cooperation is the most powerful argument against the idea that an independent Palestinian state would be a threat to Israel.

Prime Minister Netanyahu could also cede control of more West Bank land to the Palestinian Authority. It is crucial that the Palestinian government be allowed to rule in areas that are generally understood to be part of the future Palestinian state.

And though Mr. Netanyahu’s interest in Palestinian economic development is commendable, the notion that “economic peace,” as he terms it, is a substitute for a comprehensive, negotiated agreement is wrongheaded. This is a political conflict, and a political conflict requires a political solution. The term “economic peace” also suggests to Palestinians that Israel is set on depriving them of their right to national self-determination, and has caused some Palestinians to misread the authority’s state-building program as an instrument of Israeli government manipulation and control.

Of course, no Palestinian state will emerge on a West Bank blanketed with settlements, and the future of the larger, more far-flung settlements must ultimately be decided by a negotiated agreement. However, a modified and limited, but very public and systematic, withdrawal of settlers from remote or particularly confrontational settlements, especially from the so-called outposts that even Israel considers illegal, would have a powerful effect on Palestinian perceptions about Israel’s long-term intentions.

WE do not expect Israel to unilaterally withdraw both its military and the settlers from the West Bank, particularly given the consequences of Ariel Sharon’s flawed unilateral disengagement from Gaza, which ultimately led to the rise of Hamas. No doubt Israeli troops will remain in control of settlements until there is a negotiated withdrawal, whether it occurs in one stroke or in stages. But we believe even a modest effort by Israel to reverse the pattern of settlement growth could strongly improve conditions for negotiations — and improve Israel’s sinking image.

It should also go without saying that the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem to make way for settlers simply cannot continue. Mr. Sharon’s Gaza plan was flawed, but the insight that brought it about (one shared by his successor, Ehud Olmert) was acute: Israel has no future as the occupier of Palestinians who don’t agree to be occupied. One hopes that Mr. Netanyahu shares that insight, although one must also recognize that politically he has every incentive to remain ambiguous.

There are important steps the Palestinians can take, as well, that would create a more positive atmosphere for negotiations. Last August, Prime Minister Fayyad pledged, in a widely broadcast speech, to use the West Bank’s public education system to combat religious and political fanaticism. And while many Hamas-influenced imams and schoolteachers in the West Bank have been removed from the state payroll, incitement and indoctrination continue. The Palestinian Authority should follow through on Mr. Fayyad’s promise, and the rest of the world should support this with as much financial and technical assistance as possible.

Things have been further complicated in recent weeks as several Latin American states have recognized the Palestinians and upgraded the diplomatic status of their missions. Many Israelis are discomfited by this. The P.L.O. should be as clear as possible that these efforts do not constitute an end-run around an American-brokered negotiated agreement, but are an adjunct to both negotiations and the state-building program.

The best Israeli response to these initiatives would be to institute confidence-building measures that demonstrate that the key to Palestinian independence does not lie with Chile and Bolivia, but with Israel and the United States. Palestinians understand, of course, that at the end of the day, their independence depends on one country, Israel, more than any other, since it is Israel that controls the land that would comprise their state.

THERE are, however, Palestinian initiatives that are completely counterproductive. Continued threats to unilaterally declare independence are pointless and provocative. Support for boycotts against all Israeli products and companies also serve only to convince Israel and its supporters that the Palestinians seek its elimination. Israel is a member of the United Nations and must not be delegitimized. It is understandable that Palestinians are supporting boycotts of products made in settlements, however, since the settlements are illegitimate and must not be legitimized.

There are two other steps that the Israelis and Palestinians could take that could reignite hope. The first would see the end of obfuscation about long-term intentions. Both sides need to emphasize their commitment to a genuine two-state solution with an independent, sovereign Palestine living alongside Israel in peace and security. Ambiguity on this point for cynical political purposes is destroying confidence on both sides in the capacity of the other to compromise. At least since the Camp David talks of 2000, both parties have argued one line in public and another behind closed doors, an unhappy tactic that has been underscored by Al Jazeera’s release of the alleged diplomatic documents.

Polls show that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians say they both want a two-state solution, but also say they believe the other side is lying. Peace will not come if politicians refuse to prepare their citizens for it through clear and consistent language. Officially produced Israeli and Palestinian advertisements and maps that depict Israel as Palestine and vice versa must also be put to an end.

The other step is even more difficult to achieve, because it requires the softening of hearts. In 1997, a Jordanian soldier murdered seven Israel schoolgirls who were on an outing on an island in the Jordan River. King Hussein of Jordan crossed the border and visited the families of the girls to apologize for their deaths. In Israeli eyes, this simple act of compassion transformed the king from an enemy into a hero.

Imagine, then, what would happen if Mahmoud Abbas were to visit Israel and tell Israelis he acknowledges that they have national and historical rights on the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, and that he understands their suffering. And imagine what would happen if Benjamin Netanyahu were to visit Ramallah, acknowledge Palestinian suffering and also Palestinian national and historical rights, particularly to a country of their own, on their native land.

The two of us have been following the Middle East peace talks for years, and we are not naïve about the chances for peace. We disagree on a dozen aspects of this conflict, which is not surprising for an Arab and a Jew. But we also know that giving up or walking away is not an option, because the alternative to compromise is the abyss.

Hariri Tribunal will be Hezbollah’s Goldstone Report

Despite the understandable anxiety about the collapse of the Lebanese government—and the reaction of Hezbollah to the increasing likelihood that some of its operatives may be indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri—the most probable scenario is that, for now, things in Lebanon will stay much as they have been.

For months Hezbollah leaders have been doing their best to muddy the waters, raise doubts and make sure that anyone who wants to be skeptical about whatever the tribunal ends up saying can present at least some arguments, however fatuous. However, the Lebanese situation boils down to an uneasy stability of unstable elements, and that’s not likely to change because of a tribunal report. The idea that any senior Hezbollah figure would be arrested by any forces presently on the ground anywhere in Lebanon is implausible to say the least.

Hezbollah’s withdrawal from, and collapsing of, the government because the cabinet would not repudiate the tribunal is an implicit admission that the likely contents of the report could be extremely problematic. If the accusations are as damning as anticipated, Hezbollah will probably suffer a similar set of challenges that Israel faced from the Goldstone Report into the Gaza war.

What Hezbollah can look forward to, then, is an extremely embarrassing set of accusations that are difficult to refute; potential legal difficulties for some of its operatives, especially when traveling abroad; a very powerful political cudgel with which it can be beaten and berated by its opponents; and a generalized embarrassment which will discredit and weaken it.

However, just as no senior Israeli has been arrested or indicted due to the Goldstone Report, it’s very difficult to imagine anyone significant to Hezbollah being brought before the tribunal in The Hague, a Lebanese court or to any other court. Similarly, the indictment of Sudanese President Omar Bachir, formally charged with war crimes, has proven to be embarrassing words on paper, but little more.

The Lebanese political equilibrium, which is largely based on a very weak centralized government and strong local control by regional and sectarian interests, is not going to be restructured by the Special Tribunal indictments, when they are confirmed. Whatever they say is likely to result in a good deal of shouting, but not much shooting.

The real question is the role of outside forces. It’s probably not an exaggeration to suggest that almost all major Lebanese political factions operate at two separate registers simultaneously. On the one hand, they serve their constituencies’ interests within the Lebanese power structure, and provide services, protection and other essential, quasi-governmental functions within their given areas. On the other hand, virtually all of them are allied with or beholden to foreign powers that have greater or lesser degrees of influence depending on the amount of political, material and financial support they provide.

Most recently, Lebanon has been the subject of a Saudi-Syrian rapprochement that was initially welcomed but has become increasingly uncomfortable for Iran and its Hezbollah clients. The demand that the Lebanese government cease all cooperation with the tribunal is, at least in part, a reaction to increasing unease with the way this rapprochement is functioning from Iran’s and Hezbollah’s perspective. Hezbollah may be calling the Syrian bluff to force it to choose between its alliance with Iran and its rapprochement over Lebanon with Saudi Arabia, since this new combined hegemony was doing nothing to stop the tribunal from going forward.

What all of this underscores is the extent to which it is foreign actors that really have both the ability and potential interest in disrupting Lebanon’s oddly stable equilibrium of volatile, incompatible and fundamentally unstable elements.

None of the major forces inside Lebanon, for their own purposes, would find it advantageous at present to launch a major conflict. Everyone has their fiefdoms, and the equilibrium of forces means that no one can be confident of ultimate success. Even Hezbollah must be aware that historically whenever any power, internal or external, attempts to assert its primacy throughout Lebanon, it tends to face a united front of all other actors and eventually finds itself forced to retreat to its natural base.

There also does not appear to be any obvious reason under present circumstances for foreign powers, including Iran or Israel, to seek to initiate another large-scale conflict in Lebanon, although either might at some future date seek to use it as the site of a proxy war, perhaps the prelude to a more direct confrontation.

For all their enmity, Israel and Hezbollah have shared some interestingly parallel experiences in recent years, including their mutually futile and damaging war in 2006 that was inconclusive, and from which neither has fully recovered. If the Special Tribunal report is as damaging to Hezbollah as many anticipate, they will share yet another similar experience, as its consequences are likely to bear more resemblance to Israel’s experience with the Goldstone Report than to anything else in recent memory.

Words matter, both in the Middle East and the United States

The horrifying massacre in Tucson, Arizona, targeting American Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, leaving her critically injured and killing six other people, again demonstrates that domestic terrorism in the United States, of which this is almost certainly a variant, can arise from many sources other than Muslim extremists.

The most recent comparable event of this magnitude, the Fort Hood massacre by Major Nidal Hasan, was seized on by much of the American right as another example of the pathology inherent in either Islam itself or contemporary Muslim culture. However, this latest outrage reminds us how many different ideologies can inform crazed acts of murderous violence.

There is a complex relationship between incendiary rhetoric and extremist violence. Many on the American left immediately pointed to inflammatory language against Giffords and others by right-wing ideologues such as the former Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, and sought to tarnish the entire American right with the massacre.

That’s going too far. The motivations of the plainly deranged young man who perpetrated the Tucson killings, Jared Loughner, are not yet clear, and what exactly influenced him to go on this rampage has yet to be fully established. As with recent terrorist outrages in the Middle East, such as attacks on Christians in Iraq and Egypt, the direct blame lies with the killers themselves.

However, it would also be wrong to dismiss the relationship between even implicit incitement and its ultimate translation into violence at the hands of lunatics. My colleague Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, and I have recently written about the relationship between language and violence in the Arab context. Words matter. As we’ve pointed out, there is a progression between rhetoric that begins with chauvinistic bluster, descends into proclamations of fear and hatred, and finally informs acts of murderous violence.

This doesn’t mean that those who engage in irresponsible rhetoric bear a direct blame for the acts of those who take their words too literally, or their ideology to an irrational but predictable conclusion. But it does mean that everyone has a responsibility to carefully weigh the potential consequences of their interventions and understand the potential effect on some of their audience.

Arizona has been a hotbed of inflammatory rhetoric in the United States in recent years. The immigration debate; the Minuteman and Tea Party movements; the effort to promote the bearing of arms in public spaces; angry rhetoric about “taking the country back;” and dark implications about the origins, motivations and loyalties of President Barack Obama have all been strong features of its political climate.

The chief law enforcement officer of the site of the massacre, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a Democrat, bluntly stated, “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government – the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. Unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital.”

Naturally many on the American right have reacted with anger at the suggestion that their side of the political aisle bears any kind of collective responsibility for this outrage. After I lamented the consequences of the deterioration of political discourse in that state, I had an angry exchange with Noah Pollack. He was most recently involved in an Emergency Committee for Israel, the “emergency” apparently being that there was a Democrat in the White House.

Pollack was not surprisingly, and perhaps reasonably, upset at the implication that the American right in general bears any kind of responsibility for the actions of a lone lunatic. Perhaps he now knows how Arab and Muslim Americans felt after the Fort Hood massacre.

Indeed, how many of us had that familiar post-9/11 reflex reaction: “How horrible, but thank goodness it wasn’t an Arab or a Muslim culprit.” After almost 10 years of living with the constant terror of that kind of collective blame, enough is enough. Those whose incitement may have egged on the Arizona shooter bear their share of responsibility, but not direct blame. Those whose incitement provokes Muslim extremist terrorism must be similarly held to account. But no ethnic or religious community could conceivably be held responsible.

Some, such as Jack Shafer of Slate, have suggested that any effort to condemn extreme speech is tantamount to unacceptable censorship. However, in reality it’s up to all of us to set minimal standards for what can be regarded as responsible, acceptable speech, and what must be shunned as outrageous or indeed dangerous. The American right and left, like the Islamist right and Arab nationalist left, have a responsibility to police their ranks, or accept their share of the responsibility, if not direct blame, for the predictable acts of violence that the incendiary rhetoric they tolerate or promote is bound to eventually provoke.

Intellectual Flights and Narrative Wars

The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, by Gilbert Achcar, Metropolitan Books, 400 pages, $30

The Flight of the Intellectuals, by Paul Berman, Melville House, 224 pages, $26

Paul Berman’s important and frequently brilliant, but also seriously flawed book The Flight of the Intellectuals is an old-fashioned polemic that takes aim at two main targets. The first are his fellow liberal intellectuals Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, whom he accuses of a witches’ brew of offenses involving white liberal guilt and displaced racism, abandonment of Enlightenment values, and craven cowardice in the face of Islamist bullying, and whom he considers emblematic of a widespread rot in the Western liberal intelligentsia. But to get to them, he has to go through Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss Muslim academic and activist who also happens to be the grandson of the founder of the original Muslim Brotherhood Party in Egypt, Hassan al-Banna, and the son of al-Banna’s second in command, Said Ramadan. So actually, the bulk of the book dwells on not only Ramadan but also al-Banna and, in great detail, his ally Amin al-Husseini, the onetime grand mufti of Jerusalem.

Berman does a very good job of explicating Ramadan’s highly problematic forebears and his troubling, albeit perfectly natural, fealty to the frankly baneful legacies of his grandfather and, to a lesser extent, his father. Describing al-Banna as the godfather of most political applications of contemporary Islamism, especially in the Arab world, is exactly right. But, he concedes, the son is not the father or the grandfather and needs to be considered on his own terms. Berman has contributed a significant degree of clarity to several important debates, and one of the most important effects his book could have over the long run is to prompt more Western intellectuals who write about Arab and Muslim issues to read more thoroughly what people from the Middle East, reactionary and liberal alike, are saying, and to subject those views to serious and critical analysis rather than assuming they already know them. Berman does a largely admirable and sometimes excellent job of critiquing Ramadan’s ambiguities, lacunae, and evasions, and he makes the case better than it has been made before. Berman is right that Ramadan basically seems to mean what he says and that his agenda is to create what amounts to a socially and religiously conservative Muslim counterculture, or at least subculture, in Western societies.

Probably the most telling line in Berman’s insightful portrait of Ramadan is his observation that “he wants to issue reassurances in every direction.” This habit was part of what led many to hope that Ramadan would be a positive influence when he first rose to prominence. The hope raised by initial readings of Ramadan’s most important book,Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, was that the effort to combine innovation with reassurance was largely designed to assuage the fears of conservatives, traditionalists, and even radicals in the Muslim community while engaging in some serious, substantive reform and modernization of thinking in Western, and possibly even international, Muslim religious circles.

Consider a simple but telling example how Ramadan tries to deploy this process of universal reassurances. First, he observes that all texts require interpretation (two steps forward) but that, “if there is an explicit Qur’anic verse whose meaning is obvious and leaves no room for hypothesis or interpretation, no ijtihad [independent interpretation] is possible” (two steps back—and, of course, there is no such thing as a text whose meaning is obvious and leaves no room for hypothesis or interpretation). Finally, he observes that “the great majority of the verses in the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet are not of both a strict and compelling nature” (one step forward, but only if the subsequent interpretations are genuinely reflective of rather than reactionary toward universal human values and the enlightened interests of Western and other Muslims).

Here is Ramadan always issuing reassurances in every direction, even in his methodology. Modern minds are reassured that even religious texts require interpretation; traditionalists are reassured that explicit texts do not allow for interpretation; and everybody is reassured that there are, in fact, very few genuinely explicit texts and that lots of interpretation will be necessary. The problem is that having described the process, Ramadan has almost always failed to play a positive role in shaping the interpretation in the right direction, which renders his contribution, at this point anyway, largely pointless, if not negative. Unfortunately, both Salafist and liberal Muslim reformers would both have to rely on this kind of textual and doctrinal flexibility to overturn traditionally dominant interpretations that are, respectively, too permissive or too restrictive for their liking. So promising processes can just as easily turn out to be alarming ones.

Berman is absolutely right when he concludes that Ramadan “is imprisoned in a cage made of his own doctrine about his grandfather and his grandfather’s ideology” and that he “wants to make his cage look like anything but a cage” but “cannot figure out how to unlock the cage.” Berman’s damning and persuasive conclusion is that Ramadan “cannot think for himself. He does not believe in thinking for himself.”

But Berman’s effort to paint Ramadan as an apologist for terrorism is quite unpersuasive. Berman overstates his case when he cites Ramadan’s judgment that, for Palestinians, “armed resistance was incumbent” and concludes that this amounts to a justification for terrorism, as if the two were necessarily synonymous. They might, but need not, be. And it is a stretch to say that Ramadan “understands terrorism so tenderly that he ends up justifying it” and that he “justifies [terrorism] so thoroughly that he ends up defending it.” Defending terrorism is a charge that ought to be reserved for a case that can be made less indirectly.

Indeed, Berman misreads the Palestinian national movement rather badly. He seems to think, quite wrongly, that from its outset Islamism and the legacy of al-Banna’s ideas largely guided it. Some of his passages would lead an unversed reader to conclude that the Palestinian movement has been an Islamist one for most of its history. On the contrary, after the reformation in the late 1960s of Palestinian national institutions following the 1947–48 Nakba (“catastrophe,” the expulsion and dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes during the establishment of the state of Israel), most Palestinian discourse was anything but Islamist. It was decidedly secular—in parts, third worldist, socialist, and nationalist. Most Palestinian nationalists from the 1960s until the late 1980s would have regarded Islamists as retrograde, reactionary, ridiculous, and probably agents of the West. Political culture has obviously changed since then, not only among the Palestinians but also in the entire Muslim world, and as the mantle of nationalism in the eyes of many has passed from secular nationalists to Islamists, a disturbing amount of political discourse has reversed the order of things, with Islamists now all too often considered the nationalist vanguard and secularist nationalists consigned to the category of retrograde, reactionary, and probably agents of the West. Even so, the Islamist tendency does not yet dominate the Palestinian movement (although if all efforts to negotiate an end to the occupation fail, it eventually may).

Berman complains that Palestinian leaders “might have noticed after several decades that, realistically speaking, violent tactics were advancing the struggle not one whit, and counterproductive tactics ought to be jettisoned in favor of actions better calculated to succeed at building a Palestinian state, side by side with Israel, if need be—as could probably have been achieved at various moments over the years.” Apparently, he has never heard of President Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected in 2005 with a 63 percent majority after running on a strictly nonviolent—indeed, antiviolent— platform, or of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is busy building the basic institutional, infrastructural, economic, and administrative framework of the Palestinian state. He doesn’t acknowledge the paradigm shift that has taken place in the secular nationalist, which is to say mainstream, Palestinian leadership regarding violence and how to achieve statehood and independence.

Berman’s critique of Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash (and by implication an entire class of other intellectuals) centers on their attitudes toward the former Dutch Somali politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, on the one hand, and Ramadan, on the other. He argues that Buruma and Garton Ash are two examples, presumably among many, of liberal Western intellectuals who fail to defend the values of the West and the Enlightenment by implicitly or explicitly endorsing the likes of Ramadan, who Berman argues (persuasively, in my view) does not uphold those traditions, and by implicitly or explicitly criticizing Hirsi Ali, who he argues (unpersuasively, in my view) does uphold them.

Berman makes two essentially contradictory arguments in attempting to explain why Western liberal intellectuals would engage in such an allegedly craven betrayal. The first is that they embody internalized Western guilt and white racism masquerading as compassion for the non-Western world, a case of fetishizing the “authenticity” they imagine Ramadan to possess. It is highly debatable whether this is really what has been going on in this case, but the phenomenon Berman describes does exist. His second explanation is that, since the Rushdie affair, the threat of potential and in some cases real violence against strong critics of Islam and Islamists has become so widespread that Western intellectuals are driven by fear—“mortal fear, the fear of getting murdered by fanatics in the grip of a bizarre ideology.” That such fear legitimately exists in many quarters, especially in the Middle East but also in Europe, there is no doubt. But why it would infect the work of people like Buruma and Garton Ash, who could just as easily write about something else, rather than seriously trying to engage with Ramadan and Hirsi Ali and coming to conclusions strikingly different from Berman’s about both, does not follow in the least. And Berman does not seem to experience any mortal fear despite his criticisms of Ramadan.

Berman views their negative evaluation of Hirsi Ali as symptomatic of a kind of Western liberal self-hatred, because he sees her as a champion of humanist and Western values, and more important, of the Enlightenment and its values. But Hirsi Ali is, alas, an anti-Muslim bigot. She insists that the worst actions of any Muslims represent “true Islam” and that all believing Muslims must support the actions of the most brutal extremists. In her book Infidel, she recounts that after the September 11, 2001 attacks, her Dutch colleagues were insisting that, even if the attacks were the work of Muslim extremists, they were not a reflection on Islam as a faith or on Muslims in general. Hirsi Ali thought to herself, “But it is about Islam. This is based in belief. This is Islam.” Then, she reports, she did some “research” to check this preexisting conclusion. Not surprisingly, she found that her alleged research vindicated her assumption. She concluded, “Every devout Muslim who aspired to practice genuine Islam . . . must have at least approved of [the attacks].” “True Islam,” she adds, is by definition, and in apparent contrast with all other religions, “totalitarianism” and “leads to cruelty.” Hirsi Ali and many other anti-Muslim ideologues explicitly hold that all of these traditional, moderate, or liberal Muslims are simply wrong and their ideas invalid, and that the worst extremists are right in their interpretation of the faith. More benign interpretations are foreclosed, and moderation and reform invalidated. On this point she agrees, ironically, with the likes of Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri.

When she relocated to the United States, Hirsi Ali became even more strident about presenting Islam, in all its forms and as a faith, as an enemy of the West that must be “crushed.” In a 2007 interview with Reason magazine, she said that the faith could be socially and politically useful “[o]nly if Islam is defeated.” When asked, “Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?” She replied, “No. Islam, period.” She explained, “I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars. . . . There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.” She concludes: “There is no moderate Islam. There are Muslims who are passive, who don’t all follow the rules of Islam, but there’s really only one Islam, defined as submission to the will of God. There’s nothing moderate about it.” And, she proclaims, echoing so many other Islamophobes, “Islam is a political movement.”

Berman soft-pedals Hirsi Ali’s aggressive, intransigent, and intolerant attitude toward Islam and Muslims, yet this is precisely what he accuses Buruma and Garton Ash of doing with Ramadan. Berman asks, “What if it were true [that Hirsi Ali has been] hurling a few high-spirited insults at her old religion?” suggesting that such comments are somehow reasonable, understandable, or harmless.

So although Berman has seen through Ramadan with crystal clarity in most ways, and especially on the most important issues, he reveals a debilitating blindness when it comes to other crucial subjects, such as the nature and evolution of the Palestinian national movement and, perhaps even more egregiously, the substance of Hirsi Ali’s interventions, which he indefensibly misreads as championing universal, humanist Enlightenment values, when in fact their intolerance flies directly in the face of those values. Berman may well have a good point about a certain type of Western liberal intellectual who fails to defend humanist and Enlightenment values in the face of presumed non-Western authenticity, but if he has gotten the diagnosis right, his prescription is no improvement on the disease.

It is most instructive to read Berman’s book alongside another important recent study, Gilbert Achcar’s The Arabs and the Holocaust. Berman’s book purports to be about Western liberal intellectuals but actually ends up devoting much of its attention to al-Husseini, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. Sadly, his grasp of the trajectory of twentieth-century Arab political thought is highly skewed, according al-Husseini far more significance than can be justified and presenting his enthusiastic collaboration with the Nazis after he fled from the British authorities in Palestine as a cause and crucial starting point of what Berman refers to as a “Nazified Islam.” Berman does not exaggerate al-Husseini’s outrageous conduct during World War II or the foulness of his rhetoric. There is no doubt that, having fled Palestine, he took up an alliance with the Nazis not merely out of necessity, as some other anticolonial figures from the British Empire did, but also showed a level of enthusiasm for Nazi anti-Semitism that is appalling. The broadcasts that he did for Germany directed toward the Arab world did indeed preach a version of fundamentalist Islam infused with a Nazi version of anti-Semitism.
But those broadcasts hardly introduced such ideas into the Islamist discourse. Had he paid attention to Achcar, Berman would not have so badly misread the central role of Rashid Rida, one of the key founders of the Salafist revival movement and publisher of the hugely influential journal al-Manar. Berman cites him as “express[ing] respect for the Zionist settlers” in the 1920s. This is correct, but it misses Rida’s subsequent introduction of the very Nazi-like anti-Semitic ideas that Berman associates most strongly with al-Husseini, and probably in a much more lasting and influential manner. And Rida was not the only such influential voice. Achcar provides a far more sophisticated and better-informed road map than Berman’s to the development of Nazi-like anti-Semitism among Islamists.

Berman lavishes a great deal of attention in the service of his case against Ramadan on al-Husseini’s ghastly broadcasts for the Nazis but admits that “the broadcasts reached a relatively small audience in the Arab world.” Indeed, there is really no reason to think that they had any significant audience or lasting impact at all, although Berman tries, quite unconvincingly, to maintain that they did. Al-Husseini’s main role in Germany was to whip up Arab support for the Germans and the Italians, especially in the form of recruits. As Achcar notes, “The meager results say a great deal about both the Arabs’ support for Nazism and the mufti’s influence.”

At the same time, Achcar has no difficulty identifying al-Husseini as an enthusiastic supporter of Nazism and, in his letter addressed to the Nazi-dominated Hungarian government in 1943 suggesting that Jews be sent to Poland instead of Palestine, as probably criminally complicit in the Holocaust. Achcar notes that although al-Husseini may or may not have known at the time about the systematic genocide against the Jews, he certainly knew about the concentration camps in Poland, and “it is probable that he would have made the same request even had he known that the Nazis were carrying out their Final Solution.”

Al-Husseini was certainly the most prominent Palestinian leader of his generation, largely because, for complex reasons, he was promoted far beyond his qualifications or abilities by the British, who considered him a useful ally until the Palestinian uprising in 1936. After his return to the Middle East following the end of World War II, the Arab League unceremoniously shoved him aside amid the diplomacy dealing with the issue of partition and in the buildup to the 1948 war, and his various demands were repeatedly rejected. In a last-minute maneuver led by Egypt, the Arab League tried to restore his authority to offset the influence of Jordan, but the entire project collapsed. And there is no question that, following the defeat in 1948 and the Palestinian Nakba, al-Husseini was an utterly discredited figure not only with virtually no political influence remaining but also generally bearing a large part of the blame for the catastrophe. Achcar quotes one of al-Husseini’s biographers, the former Israeli military governor of the occupied territories, Zvi Elpeleg, as pointing out “The memory of [al-Husseini] disappeared from the Palestinian public consciousness almost without a trace. No days of mourning [upon his death] were set aside in his memory. His name was not commemorated in the refugee camps, and no streets were named after him. No memorials were built in his memory, and no books written extolling his deeds.” Achcar points out that even Hamas maintains an “embarrassed silence” about him.

Berman describes the initial Arab reaction to the Holocaust as “the belief that, whatever may have happened in Europe, the Arab world had no reason to give the matter any thought. . . . It was not so much a question of Holocaust denial, nor of Holocaust justification, nor of Holocaust belittlement, but of Holocaust avoidance.” Those passages suggest a serious lack of understanding on Berman’s part about the way cultures function. The Holocaust, for all its horror, was an entirely Western phenomenon, and, in effect, the byproduct of a massive, internecine Western civil conflict that spilled over into, and drew in, parts of the colonized world. The phenomenon Berman is describing not only is not unique to the Arab world but also is, frankly, the virtually universal non-Western reaction to the Holocaust. The same could be said of India, China, Indochina, or much of Africa for that matter, all societies in which there was not and continues not to be any great amount of thought given to the matter. But, given Achcar’s book and a great deal of other evidence, it is clear that Arabs have not always simply avoided, or merely denied, the Holocaust but have had a very complex relationship to it as a narrative and as a historical fact.

Berman asks, “Or will someone argue that in my presentation of these developments in the Middle East, I am making too much of the Nazi contribution?” He obviously is. There is no doubt whatsoever that much of the present Islamist movement is infected with a very virulent form of anti-Semitic paranoia—largely imported from the West and promoted by many forces, including the Nazis—that has a complex and overdetermined political and cultural history. There have been plenty of other very significant, and indeed much more powerful, sources of these terrible ideas, not least of them anti-Semitic Western Christian missionaries in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Berman falls into the trap Achcar describes as “a historical grand narrative that leads straight from the mufti to Osama bin Laden” (or at least to the influential Salafist preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi and, by extension, to Ramadan).

That said, Achcar’s book also suffers from some extremely significant flaws, and his own dubious grand narratives. Although he is appropriately tough on the Islamist movement, he soft-pedals the vitriolic anti-Semitic views of some Arab nationalists. Achcar’s most significant intervention in contemporary politics is his book’s uncompromising anti-Zionism. The whole point of his book is to draw a connection between two themes—a serious and largely fair-minded historical account of Arab reactions to the Holocaust on the one hand and a fairly strong political polemic against Zionism on the other. But the two themes do not sit very well together. The contrast raises suspicions that he deploys the first to strengthen the hand of the second, which may have been the main point all along. Or perhaps he is deploying the second to defend the credibility, at least for Arab audiences, of the first. Either way, his anti-Zionist polemic undermines the main point of the book about the complex history of the cultural and political reception of the Holocaust in the Arab world.

Achcar argues that Holocaust denial and denial of the Nakba are reciprocal phenomena, and he is calling for a dialogue based on mutual recognition of the twin calamities. He is careful to acknowledge that “the Palestinians cannot, however, advisedly and legitimately apply to their own case the superlatives appropriate to the Jewish genocide.” Achcar suggests that Holocaust denial by Westerners whose societies were the culprits of the genocide should be distinguished from the same arguments made by Arabs who have been the victims of Israeli colonialism and oppression, asking, “Should such denial, when it comes from oppressors, not be distinguished from denial in the mouths of the oppressed, as the racism of ruling whites is distinguished from that of subjugated blacks?” It’s an interesting point, but in the end, all it really seems to accomplish is to open a certain space to be more tolerant of indefensible Arab claims and positions about Jewish history, which cannot be the basis of any serious dialogue. Achcar makes the same dubious case about Zionism itself. He argues that, on the one hand, insofar as Zionism was a defensive reaction to European anti-Semitism, “it is as morally excusable as the reactive racism of blacks to white racism.” “On the other hand,” he argues, once Israel was established as a state, it became “ipso facto, a fundamentally racist colonial movement comparable to the European forms of colonialism with which it had identified.”

These arguments all seem to center on an assumption that whoever can successfully claim to be the victim in any given situation suddenly acquires the moral authority to engage in activities that are forbidden to those in the category of the culprits. It also suggests that the two positions are the only ones available to societies, and possibly to individuals, which are always caught in a dynamic binary between dominance and subordination. Moreover, it suggests that groups can, as the Zionist movement did, rapidly move from the position of oppressed to that of oppressor, in the process shifting what is morally available to them as legitimate attitudes and conduct. The underlying idea is that the political and ethical defensibility of any given set of attitudes such as racism or actions such as violence depends entirely on whether they are carried out by those who are oppressors or those who are oppressed. This logic, which comes dangerously close to moral relativism, deeply undermines Achcar’s appeals for mutual understanding and honest dialogue because it dispenses with universal standards and allows any group the ability to claim a kind of moral carte blanche by asserting that it is a victim.

One of Achcar’s weakest arguments in his effort to structure Holocaust and Nakba denial as reciprocal forms of misrecognition and blindness is his effort to suggest that Israelis have consciously preferred dealing with anti-Semitic Arabs in peace negotiations. He cites as key examples the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (whom he calls “a notorious Jew hater,” which is at the very least extreme hyperbole) and current Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. He accuses Abbas of having made “remarks denying the Holocaust in the doctoral dissertation he defended in Moscow and published in Amman in 1984.” Again, this is a troubling exaggeration that undermines its own argument, as Abbas did not deny the Holocaust but suggested that the total number of Jewish deaths in the genocide is not known with any precision or certainty. Nonetheless, Achcar, who does not appear to approve of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty or the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations led by Abbas, asks whether this diplomacy “is . . . a sign of elective affinities between Jew haters and Arab haters, whose vision of the world is the same, only stood on its head?” The answer clearly is no. It seems scarcely possible to seriously argue that Sadat and Abbas are prime examples of Arab anti-Semites, if they can seriously be described as anti-Semitic at all, and of course his question assumes that the Israeli leaders in question also obviously qualified as “Arab haters” without any serious interrogation of this assumption. The implicit subtext of this critique is that Zionism is borne of or necessarily involves Arab hatred, and the only Arabs who either wish to or successfully can enter into serious diplomacy with Israel are, of necessity, Jew haters. There is a level of facile, faux-counterintuitive playfulness about these arguments, reminiscent of Arab critiques of Zionism as a virulent form of anti-Semitism, that is ultimately silly and also self-defeating.

The ongoing debate about al-Husseini and the Holocaust has given many people in the West the impression that during World War II the Arabs and the Muslims in general sided with the Nazis, largely on the basis of anti-Semitism. Berman says as much: “everyone understood during the war that, if a good many Arabs and Muslims condemned the Axis and even fought on the side of the Allies, an even larger number, in some regions an overwhelming number, cheered the Axis on, actively or passively.” At the same time, Berman acknowledges the reality that “Vastly more Arab soldiers fought on the Allied side, in the British and Free French armies.” And, he notes, “some forty thousand African and North African soldiers in the Free French armed forces are said to have died in the liberation of Europe in 1944 and [19]45 alone—a huge statistic if you give it any thought.”

About six thousand Arabs are estimated to have been involved in the German war effort during the entire conflict. Achcar points out\ that nine thousand Palestinians alone enlisted in the British army during the war. At least half a million Indian Muslims enlisted in the British military during the conflict. Achcar provides a number of other telling statistics. The majority of the French army troops in North Africa in 1939 and 1940 were Arabs. In the French defeat of June 1940, approximately 5,400 Arab soldiers were killed fighting on the Allied side, and the Germans captured an estimated 90,000 Muslims—60,000 Algerians, 18,000 Moroccans, and 12,000 Tunisians. It has been estimated that 233,000 North African Muslims were serving in the Free French Army in 1944, and that something like 52 percent of all soldiers of the Free French Army killed during the last year of the war were Muslims, mostly from North Africa. So, as a matter of fact, Arabs and Muslims were heavily involved in World War II, but on the Allied side, not the Nazi side. This remains a woefully untold and acknowledged story, especially in the West.

In all the territories of the Third Reich, it was in Albania alone, which just so happens to have been the only Muslim-majority country in Europe to come under direct German occupation, that not one Jew was handed over to the Germans. (The same, it must be said, sadly, does not apply to Muslim-majority enclaves in parts of the former Yugoslavia, such as Bosnia or Kosovo, not to mention Catholic Croatia.) As a consequence, Albania was the only country in continental Europe to emerge from the war with a larger Jewish population than it had had at its start. This has been documented in the excellent bookBesa: Muslims Who Saved Jews in World War II, by Norman H. Gershman.

Both Berman and Achcar have written books with an agenda, or more accurately with multiple agendas. Each in his own way has made a significant contribution to the recent literature on these closely related topics, especially if read side by side and contrapuntally. Berman has taken his Arab and Muslim subjects seriously and has tried, with varying degrees of success, to understand them on their own terms. Achcar has honestly confronted the growth of Holocaust denial in the Arab and Muslim worlds, especially among Islamists, and the rise of anti-Semitism in those societies, which he correctly identifies as a consequence rather than a cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But both books ultimately have a disturbingly defensive, tribal quality that seriously undermines their stronger arguments. Berman symptomatically misreads the Palestinian national movement as essentially an Islamist one and, worse, champions Hirsi Ali despite her overt anti-Muslim bigotry. Achcar provides a limited defense of Arab Holocaust denial as the reaction of the oppressed and, worse, engages in a reductive anti-Zionist polemic that practically forecloses constructive dialogue with most Israelis. Both make strong arguments that need to be taken seriously, yet both are so hidebound and defensive at crucial moments that they surrender moral and intellectual clarity for narrow political effect. As a consequence, neither has provided a useful way forward toward a more honest, self-critical, and generous model for cross-cultural and political dialogue.

Ibishblog interview: Chris Lehmann on Rich People Things

The following Ibishblog interview was conducted a few weeks ago with Chris Lehmann, author of the new book Rich People Things (ORBooks, 2010). I heartily recommend this excellent satire of contemporary American class politics and the cultural mores, and I think Ibishblog readers can get a great sense of what's in the book and what Lehmann has to offer in general through the following conversation.

Q: Let's start with the title of the book and the genesis of the online column that gave rise to it. What I really like about it is how malleable this progression of non sequitur words really is. They could be three utterly separate words simply following on each other randomly, or it could be, as in the most obvious interpretation, things that belong to rich people or characterize the activities, beliefs and interests of rich people, which is the manifest meaning. Or it could be rich people ARE things, a hostile objectification of rich people which is I think the latent meaning of the title.

A: I think it works on all those levels and in various chapters of the book and various columns there will be times when I do just write about anything, like the chapter on Damien Hirst and his art and how that reflects the money culture.

Q: There are quite a few columns that talk about individuals, turning rich people into things.

A: Exactly, and their own jobs, one could argue, is to turn their own carbon lifeforms into rich people playthings.

Q: They have commodified themselves.

A: They have commodified their argument, or a certain vision of success, cultural achievement and the way that reward and punishment are distributed in the economic realm. These are all rich people things and they are all things produced by and for rich people, so I think even though it was very much a retroactive title slapped on an accidental column, it's proved a really good way to conceptually frame whatever it is I'm doing here.

Q: What is it that you're doing here?

A: I'm trying to insist that economic populism is an issue, or shall we say there is a useful way of looking at social and political class as an American cultural issue, and what's interesting to me is how that stable of ideas has been systematically subverted, buried or distorted beyond recognition in the official ways in which we have of understanding our economy, politics, and media culture. There are times when the columns in the book are a kind of media criticism. I try to think of my task as to go beyond the casual kind of deceptions, and lies frankly, about what it means to have a discussion about tax policy, say, where it's permissible to think of anyone making even more than $250,000 now as essentially middle-class. Right now in the debate over tax cuts the Republican Party has rather brilliantly framed this debate as Democrats trying to foment "class warfare" as it's called, which as you will note is something that is only discussed in America as coming from the bottom up, never the top down.

Q: Yes, there is only one class that engages in class warfare here.

A: Right, and it's also the least organized, least ideologically disciplined class is the one in question, so if they're making war, they're doing it with foam rubber swords. And, meanwhile, the Republican mantra that comes up whenever the subject of tax cuts arises is that "we want to extend the Bush tax cuts for everybody." That sounds so inclusive and unifying, right? Who doesn't want to pay lower taxes? What's interesting, at this very moment, as this debate is going on in Congress, is that there was a poll released by CBS at the end of last week that only 26% of Americans, when the issue is explained rationally to them, say that the Bush tax cuts should be extended for people earning $250,000 or more. So we're in this kind of Lewis Carroll moment.

Q: So, your book is a general attack on mystification.

A: Yes, that's the word I was trying to summon up earlier. How did we get to this point where the party that says it's representing “everyone” in this debate is actually contravening the stated will of 74% of the American public?

Q: Class warfare from the top down, but not recognized?

A: Yes, and cleverly concealed. If my book has a use, it's to insist on that concealment and point it out.

Q: And that's your conclusion, which is about mystification and the gutting of signification in economic language, class language etc.

A: Right, so we are in this through the looking glass moment where the other mantra you hear from the right now is, and every day you see examples of this, where Republican leaders will get up and deride elitists. But only liberals now are elitists. I often thinking casually scanning the news that an alien visitor would come to this country and encounter all this discourse and expect a liberal to basically be wearing a periwig and bloomers, with a snifter of some sort. The genius of this kind of rhetoric is that the GOP now represents the heroic mass resistance to these elitist fops. Just last week the incoming governor of Ohio, John Kasich, who used to be a Republican congressman, gave this barnstorming speech about tax cuts where he said that all conservative governors want from Washington, all we're telling to the leaders in Washington, is: let my people go. That is to say, stop all this talk of increasing taxes and let us destroy the barriers to wealth creation and let the economy get started again. This is a trope from the civil rights movement, going back to the book of Exodus indeed, but somehow I missed the moment in which Pharaoh became the Liberal tax hikers. It is rhetorically brilliant, but you also can't believe that things have deteriorated to this point.

Q: Some of this is very old. You find that an incredible swath of Americans consider themselves to be middle-class ranging from a household income of $20,000-$150,000 per year. And that has been true for a long time. It's almost meaningless as a term.

A: No, there's nothing new there and what's brilliant is that mathematically the term “middle” has no meaning, because again you are spanning the low 20Ks to, now, in the tax-cut debate rhetorically millionaires will be included in the middle class. So what does the middle mean in that situation? We should just get rid of the term and call it the baggy undefined class or something. The class that has no name.

Q: The point is it's not a class, it's a whole group of very separate registers in the economic spectrum with different interests.

A: Yes, and various actors in the economic and policy debate can rhetorically say things like “let my people go.” If you're savvy enough you could step forward as the Williams Jennings Bryan or Che Guevara of these oppressed people and they could be anyone. And usually, it's a funny thing but in the 70s it used to be, when I think this shift in debate started, that the middle class were the people who worked hard and played by the rules. Let me mention my first column in this series. My former employers at New York magazine looked at the uproar over the AIG bonuses when we had spent $70 billion bailing out AIG at the beginning of the financial crisis and they were paying out these lavish bonuses to executives and this, you'll remember, was one of the times in the media where there was this phony kind of anxiety about a populist uproar, and will Obama be angry and populist in response to the public's anger over this. New York magazine, and I knew this would happen having worked there, looked at this issue and decided, “well, we have to get Wall Street's side of the story.” Because, you know, these are the victims, these are the people who now say they feel unsafe and they need to hire security guards outside.

Q: Obviously the arsonist's point of view of the fire is very important.

A: Exactly, so they duly went out and reported a piece of which the short-term inspiration was, as you may recall, an AIG executive at the time who wrote this op-ed in the New York Times saying, I wasn't in the financial services division that is principally responsible and yet I'm tarred with all this and I'm quitting my job. It was this Spartacus-like statement, striking a blow on behalf of his fellow financial industry professionals.

Q: He was mad as hell and he wasn't going to take it anymore.

A:  Exactly, to use another populist trope from the 70s. So, this New York magazine piece quoted that and interviewed a number of other similarly aggrieved Wall Street executives who said things like, “people don't understand how hard we work," and "we are creating wealth,” and all that stuff you continue to hear constantly from these characters. And they were treated very sympathetically as the misunderstood Randian elite.

Q: It was a psychotherapy piece, basically?

A:  In terms of how it was framed, yes, that's right. Let's talk about the feelings of these misunderstood financial professionals. They're still getting seven-figure bonuses but they're hurt. And it was all framed as well as the public conversation about compensation and something about that in particular rankled me because here we are in the gravest financial crisis since the Depression, and you'll recall during the new deal, FDR took a very different tack. During the '36 campaign he got up at the biggest rally of the campaign in Madison Square Garden and announced that he “welcomed” the hatred of the bankers. And they hated him. At several points in the book I try to make the point of drawing that contrast because I think it's very telling, because now we have a political culture where we are worried about the feelings of these people, in official media culture anyway. And it's a very different climate.

Q: One of the things that you say about your book at the end of the introduction is that you hope it will have a tonic effect. So it seems to me you wanted to have a kind of therapeutic quality, for you and for the readers. There is a kind of venting going on here isn't there?

A: Well, absolutely, and I think part of the challenge going ahead, certainly for me personally and anyone else interested in these issues from a democratic standpoint is you do have to learn to both swat down the official social mythology about wealth in our society and figure out how to talk about it yourself in a way that's compelling, because I do think that no matter how debased the populist tradition has become at the hands of the right, there is a lot left that's worth reclaiming as well. Because God knows, the government and the financial elites understand their own class interests so we have to get in the habit of isolating that, detecting when they are speaking dishonestly about it, but also to discern what our own class interests are. Like, it doesn't make sense for our elected representatives be pushing for a tax cut extension that the vast majority of us oppose and will not only not benefit from but will be actively harmed by.

Q: We will pay for it. It's going to be a bill for us.

A: We'll pay in all sorts of ways, not only in marginal taxes but also the looting of Social Security, the social safety net which is already threadbare. One of the many absurdities of this particular moment is that we are debating this at the same time Congress has let federal unemployment benefits lapse. I don't know how much more dramatically to put this.

Q:  But, as you say, there has to be a register at which a lot of this populist rhetoric is recuperable even if it has been debased by the right because there's so much overlap between the critique that runs through your book and a lot of the critique of the tea party.

A: No, and I often wonder where is the left's tea party? But you have to look at what's tactically very smart, and I'm sure well intended on the part of the tea party, for example the appropriation of the whole idea of patriotism, you know, it's been a weird problem on the left.

Q:  But that's another thing that happened in the 70s, isn't it?

A:  Yes, you had the rise of a certain kind of identity politics, and while I don't subscribe to the conservative critique of political correctness, there is a difficulty pointed out by a very good former Clinton speechwriter who wrote a really good book called Speaking American, in which he pointed out how the '92 Clinton campaign rhetorically did a very good job of putting the first Bush presidency very much on the defensive especially around economic issues. It was more than just the slogan, “it's the economy stupid,” but it's hard to go back to that time because in 1992 Bill Clinton championed universal healthcare, and had a pretty compelling and thoughtful critique of trickle-down economics, but the problem is he never intended to govern along those lines. He was very effective in framing a populist campaign, and there's a chapter in my book on how the Democratic Party's economic profile beginning with the first Clinton term and certainly by the end of the Clinton years is the party of the rich. The rich now have a much broader range of choice. You can go with the party that is culturally more permissive and good on separation of church and state and other sorts of social issues, or you can go with the hard-line theocrats who will be there when the shit goes down, as we're seeing now.

Q:  Yes, but taking the layer of control and rhetoric at the top of the tea party out of the equation for a second, and looking at some aspects of the grassroots outrage that's genuine, how much is there separating that sentiment and those interests from a populist position in fact? Isn't it possible to argue that in there are all the elements of a genuine left populist critique?

A:  Well, not all. I would say the tea party is kind of emotionally populist, which is what gives populism a bad name, and justifiably so in many cases because that can degrade into bigotry and ugly anti-Semitism and all sorts of other stuff. It's emotionally populist and philosophically libertarian, because this is the other thing when you look at our recent political history that in my view is so essential to understand: the idea that market libertarianism has become dominant and, even for would-be dissenting movements like the tea party, hegemonic. You cannot move outside of that force field. So during the healthcare debate you had this first order delusion in the tea party protests where you would have older people coming out to town halls and telling their elected representatives, “I don't want universal healthcare because it will take away my Medicare.”

Q:  Or, I want don't government healthcare because it will interfere with my Medicare.

A:  And that is a first order delusion but behind that is the idea that they don't think of their government benefits as government benefits. What's happened is that something like Medicare has become disaggregated from a mass politics and it's become this sort of inviolate, individual right. That is to say, it's MY Medicare, it's not our Medicare, and keep your goddamn hands off it. That, in a nutshell, is the triumph of market libertarianism in my view. It's going to be a problem for the people on the right who, believe me, would love to see Medicare go away, because it can't be done.

Q:  This is the great thing about public healthcare. Once it's instituted you can never get rid of it. I've spoken with some hard-core libertarians in both developed and developing countries like Costa Rica where they have universal health care and I've never met a single one who, no matter how doctrinaire they are, thinks that it's either a good idea or politically plausible, whether or not there's any point in critiquing public healthcare as a theory, but as a fact, once it's there, it's a done deal and becomes unchallengeable. Which ought to tell you everything you need to know about public healthcare. Once it exists you can never get rid of it because people will lynch you in the streets if you try.

A:  It turns out they really like it. I mean Rush Limbaugh went to Costa Rica to get treated, for gosh sakes.

Q:  I'm sure he went to private hospitals, but it was funny that he said that if national healthcare were instituted he would move to Costa Rica, one of the few developing countries with national healthcare, which seems to elude him entirely. But I take it back. It's to give him credit for being sincere in any way. He just talks crap so I shouldn't even bother pointing out the glaring contradictions.

A:  Exactly.

Q:  So the problem you've identified is one of narratives. The free market libertarian sort of narrative that has become so hegemonic that there is no space for any other critique, in other words if there is a critique to be made it has to be a free-market critique of the free market. There is no other narrative. But why is there no other narrative? Obviously this is an overdetermined question, but I'd like to know what you think. Is it because the other narratives have simply failed to coalesce or is it because the existing non-free-market narratives have been discredited by performance in some way?

A:  Well, I think the first thing we have to understand is that there has been a 30+ year war on the new deal social contract and it actually began a long time ago. Jimmy Carter was a fiscal hawk, and he went after a lot of government spending ahead of Reagan. So, this is something that has very deep institutional roots in Washington. This idea of the vampire state or a demonized federal state has taken root in this country to such a degree that it's very difficult for anybody politically to challenge it. One of the very specific pieces of this dilemma is that Reagan not only declared war on the new deal social contract, he specifically declared war on the labor movement. So now we've gone from the mid-1950s where more than 30% of American workers were unionized, to where now it's 7% and shrinking. That is a shorthand way of explaining why the only popular planks now of liberalism are Social Security and Medicare from the Great Society because we still have old people. We don't have unionized workers, but old people vote. So as we've seen in the recent debate over healthcare, what ultimately won out was not the thing that was most popular in political terms, there was very strong support for a public option and single-payer wasn't on the table, but if it's ever explained as a rational policy people actually really like it. So the challenge then, if you're part of this force field of market libertarianism in Washington, is to ensure that it never gets to be part of the conversation and that's where the narrative comes in. It instantly got demonized, even before it was “socialist” in the rhetoric of the '09 health care fight it was “a foreign idea,” you know Canadians have it and, worse, the French! And that feeds into this debased populism because it's usually nationalist.

Q: You mentioned anti-Semitism. Have you seen any anti-Semitism from the tea party?

A: They've been very vigilant about it at least at the leadership level of routing out both that and racism.

Q: But there's been a decent amount of Islamophobia hasn't there?

A: Yes, and it's been underreported and undisciplined.

Q: Homophobia and Islamophobia, there's been plenty of both.

A: Those are acceptable. And you do see, like at the Glenn Beck 9/12 rally, racist signs too.

Q: Glenn Beck. Is he a mentally unbalanced subject? The only question I think worth asking about him is, does he need help, because someone like Limbaugh is plainly a businessman, he's making money, he's playing a role, and no need to ask what drives him. Is there something deeper and darker at work with Beck?

A: There is something deeper, and what I think it is, is that he has been treated: he's a recovering alcoholic who's become a Mormon convert. What's interesting about Beck is that he has the zeal of a convert, and that he actually uses this very particular image that's drawn from something that Joseph Smith supposedly said in the 19th century that “when the Republic is hanging by a thread the Mormon church will basically take charge.” It is a vision of theocracy.

Q: He subscribes to this?

A: Yes, there are many moments if you look through transcripts of his shows when he says that, and it's significant because it bespeaks a broader understanding of the world that is very much theocratic. In his view the Mormon faith saved his life and it will also save the American Republic in this time of crisis.

Q: So, America is an alcoholic basically?

A: Yes, which would explain the violent lurches of motivation that he attributes to the country.

Q: I wanted to ask you about the general category of rich people things for a second. What about the inverse, what about poor people things? Much of what's in here, also in its own way, are poor people things or working-class people things, or non-rich people things.

A: That's true, and I've tried to make a point in my weekly column of that. But the book is independent of that.

Q: There are some people who get particular opprobrium from you, and I was especially struck by your take on Malcolm Gladwell, who you seem to be particularly distasteful of. He generally speaking has a very good reputation, although I agree with you, so the question is what's the matter with Malcolm Gladwell?

A: Well, he's a very fluid writer, his prose is very readable, and he loves the move of going to the counterintuitive academic research and constructing a narrative such that everything you know about subject X is wrong.

Q: But, it's usually right isn't it?

A: Yes, and Steven Pinker has made this argument much better than I could, he sets up this straw man of common wisdom: what we all believe is X, but what the research really bears out is Y. His book Outliers is a perfect example, because it's an effort ironically enough to sort of take a very soft blow at the idea of the American meritocracy, and it turns out that material success doesn't correlate one-to-one with academic achievement, or that NFL quarterbacks who perform well are not necessarily the top draft picks. But as Pinker observes, college admissions offices or NFL coaches are betting in a system that guarantees a certain floor, it's not based on the performance of your number one draft pick or your summa com laude student.

Q: So, he's not looking at the whole casino, he's looking at the individual bet.

A: Right, and he doesn't understand that the house wins.

Q: Counterintuitive analytical gestures are often very rich but counterintuitive work based on research, alleged research, with an extraordinary degree of frequency turns out to be bogus, and Gladwell's an example. Foucault is another example, right? The analytical points he makes are extremely interesting, but he's wrong on almost everything factually. The great archivist was sort of completely full of crap and yet because his thinking is rich, he's still interesting. But Gladwell just only has the error, not the insight.

A: Right, he hasn't exactly filled out a persuasive analytical framework, it's just everything you know is wrong and also what ends up happening is that because the you he is tacitly addressing there isn't the average American, it's you the magazine editor or reader, and his book Blink is a perfect example of this. That's how he ends up drawing such exorbitant speaking fees from management seminars because he bears the message in Blink that every gut instinct you have is probably right, so if you are this middle manager at a major corporation and you're trying to develop some new sales pitch or some get rich quick scheme, then trust your instincts. And this is exactly what these people want to hear. It's a kind of mind cure, actually.

Q: It's a kind of anti-intellectualism of a rarefied variety.

A: You don't have to think analytically or critically about anything, just do it.

Q: Well, we've seen how that works at the level of national policy, under Pres. George W. Bush where much was determined apparently on the basis of gut and look where it got us, for example in Iraq. So there's some space left to defend the analytical, isn't there?

A: And it should be a growing space right now.

Q: But it's closing.

A: No, I agree, especially now in the wake of the last election the Obama administration seems determined to prophylactically surrender.

Q: You don't like the Obama administration.

A: Certainly I don't like its economic policies. To hark back to the experience of the new deal, what happened when the banks failed? Under FDR, he declared a bank holiday, he introduced a whole body of radical reforms saying to our financial institutions: you're doing business differently now, you can't co-mingle commercial banking and investment banking, there's going to be federal deposit insurance to ensure that you keep a minimum balance of holdings.

Q: Real reforms, structural reforms.

A: Yes, and what's just happened now is we've just had a bailout. And also three of the four bad actors in the '08 crisis were still making economic policy: Ben Bernanke,  who I think if Obama had any FDR instincts his head would be among the first to roll; Tim Geithner, who crafted TARP when he was head of the New York Fed and got a fucking promotion to go head the Treasury Department; and then as if all that weren't enough he brings back Larry Summers, the genius who as treasury secretary under Clinton dismantled all these new deal protections and created the basis for the crisis. So, in economic terms, this administration has been a big disappointment.

Q: Is there anything about the administration you like?

A: Well, I mean…

Q: I mean other than the fact that we have a black president, and more importantly a black First Lady, and maybe most importantly two African-American little girls growing up in the White House in front of the whole country?

A: That's true.

Q: From my perspective the most important aspect of the Obama administration is probably Sasha and Malia. If we get eight years of watching them grow up in the White House, the country will never be the same, culturally.

A: No, I totally agree with that. Part of this whole attack on the new deal social programs obviously involved race, and attacks on the black family, and this is a very significant moment in symbolic terms.

Q: But on policies, is there anything good, or is it one degree of disappointment or another?

A: That is our lot.

Q: I was going to say that if you have to reach back to Roosevelt for anything good to say about any administration then the question can only be asked in deep hindsight. I mean we could have sat here in the 30s saying, “he hasn't done anything about segregation.”

A: Fair enough, but why indulge in the soft bigotry of low expectations?

Q: How is it that in the midst of this catastrophe driven by greed, driven by unrestrained excess, lack of regulation, etc., that Ayn Rand has become the heroine? How the fuck does that happen? But it's a serious question. A more loathsome figure you couldn't imagine, and a less appropriate one. How could she possibly be a corrective? It would make more sense to become a Jesus freak.

A: Only in America my friend. But no, it's a real question. But you're right, there is a religious quality to the veneration of Ayn Rand but it can only be religious because logically, as you were saying, nothing in this moment recommends her.

Q: Well, it's particularly gruesome in that her most accomplished disciple, Alan Greenspan, would be the villain in chief in the grand narrative of this calamity. So the mastermind of his philosophy which caused all of this has become the heroine promoted as the corrective of the very thing which her ideas produced.

A: Yes, not only do we have a political culture that is often anti-intellectual we have zero historical memory.

Q: So, we are perfect postmodern subjects? We know nothing, we remember nothing, we are 300 million Sgt. Schultzes?

A: And that's why when, at the height of the furor during all the bailouts and when the tea party took off, you saw people wearing T-shirts and brandishing placards saying, “who is John Galt?," the famous refrain from Atlas Shrugged.

Q: I. can answer that: one of the worst characters ever dreamed up by one of the crappiest novelists who ever put pen to paper, and who was particularly unable to write characters.

A: Yes, I dallied with her work as many American teenagers do when I was a kid, out of curiosity, and I reacted with revulsion.

Q: Was she popular with your peers?

A: Oh yeah, I grew up in central Iowa and the appeal of Ayn Rand is particularly to an adolescent mentality because it's all obviously the cult of the creative genius, the Howard Roarks.

Q: It's an Oedipal fantasy, you're asserting your own phallic power.

A: Yes, and in this case that is no metaphor. There is a raging phallic mayhem in all of her novels. And it's no accident that in literary terms most successful one and her breakthrough novel, The Fountainhead, is about an architect who rapes his protagonist.

Q: And who builds giant phallic structures. Plus it's in the title anyway. It's pretty undisguised, as crude as the James Bond films I wrote about a few weeks ago.

A: But there is at least wit in the James Bond films.

Q: There is wit, and there is lots of conscious self-deprecation and self-parody. They don't pretend to be a grand philosophical project to overthrow the evil Immanuel Kant.

A: The other thing about the prototypical Ayn Rand character that I noticed when I reread a lot of this stuff for the book is that they have no family relationships unless they are fiercely Oedipal as you're describing.

Q: And as Whittaker Chambers pointed out, there are no children in any of her writings and no possibility of children. It's not a world for children.

A: In a weird way, it's almost Soviet.

Q: I really loved Chambers' review even though I don't identify with the spiritual side of it because his main rejection is of her materialism, but he had her number like nobody's business, and there's this great passage where he says that like her protagonists, she can't like children because she creates names of bankers like Midas Mulligan, and you can fool adults with this but children will always squirm uncomfortably knowing something isn't right, but not knowing exactly what. But they'll know something is all wrong with this. It's certainly a sociopathic worldview.

A: Society is a delusion that's used to enslave the creative individual.

Q: It's a philosophy that would be embraced wholeheartedly by an irate panther, living alone in the rain forest not wanting to see or meet another panther except once or twice in its life strictly for purposes of procreation, sleep most of the day and just emerge at night to kill and drink.

A: I kind of feel like you're maligning panthers.

Q: I probably am: they're just doing what panthers do, whereas she's telling people to do what people don't normally do. I am maligning panthers — they're noble creatures. Whereas her characters and people who follow her “philosophy” or dictate are ignoble. So I may be maligning panthers, but still you wouldn't want to hang out with somebody with the mentality of a panther.

A: And you definitely don't want them making your economic policies. There was this comical moment when Alan Greenspan was finally dragged before Congress and asked, “Jesus, dude, what happened here?” And he confessed. He said he had this core faith that the markets would regulate themselves and it seems to have been a flaw in his thinking. My bad. Except, and this is the beauty of the Randian worldview, there is zero personal guilt.

Q: Well, since he fulfilled his will perfectly, what's the problem? He fulfilled his own destiny. The consequences are beside the point.

A: Everyone else has to deal with it. Early on during the worst of the subprime loans when they were targeting inner-city neighborhoods, a number of the community activists and others went before the Federal Reserve and said, you don't have to be a genius to see that these people aren't really going to be able to pay their mortgages, especially when they go up. And Greenspan actively dismissed their concerns and said moreover that it's not the job of the Federal Reserve to do this kind of regulation. To which, I think, our national response should be: what the fuck is the job of the Fed in that case? It's supposed to control the money supply as an instrument of making economic policy. So maybe he could've referred these issues to HUD or Congress but he didn't do that, he just batted the concerns aside derisively. There is a perfect specimen of the Randian faith in market self-regulation.

Q: Sticking with popular culture for a second, because that's where Ayn Rand lives being utterly dismissed by any intellectuals and academics worth their salt, and certainly one of the worst writers I've ever read…

A: Well, her books are readable at a certain level.

Q: Gladwell is, but what with Midas Mulligan and everything I just can't deal with Ayn Rand.

A: You go through it much more quickly when you're 14.

Q: One of the most surprising entries in your book is the one on reality television, which I wouldn't necessarily think was a rich people thing except insofar as all TV shows are made by rich people. But it raises some very interesting questions. First of all, the whole category is an oxymoron. There couldn't be anything further from reality than TV and never the twain shall meet.

A: And there's something especially perverse about manipulating the appearance of reality to make it seem as though it is documentary vérité. I only came upon this as a subject because my wife was a TV writer and critic for a long time, and consumes it a great deal.

Q: My mantra was always do TV but don't watch it. I did go through a period of doing a lot of it, but now I try not to.

A: I know, it's an unhealthy relationship to have.

Q: Very. Toxic, is it not?

 A: So she was watching all these shows and it suddenly dawned on me that the topics were not surprisingly based on, because who else would want to do such a thing, desperate people who wanted a quick buck.

Q: It's what always drew people to become circus freaks.

A: I think the right analogy is that of the geek, the original geek, someone who would bite off a chicken head for cash. Two things gradually struck me. One was, there is literally a show on VH1 called “I love money” in which people really scheme and debase themselves and subject themselves to horrible, total exposure and at the end of the show they go to the vault where you're voted out and it's all very symbolically rich and repulsive. And you have this show called “toddlers in tiaras"…

Q: Sounds like kiddie porn.

A: It's very close. It's kiddie beauty pageants.

Q: How disgusting.

A: I will literally leave the room any time my wife has this on.

Q: You mean you've actually seen this?

 A: In passing. And only for purposes of research.

Q: They always say that.

A: I read it for the articles. But seriously, what I realized is that in all these spectacles, what they are doing is they are presenting a public theater taking poor people who have the wrong sort of ambition and punishing them, humiliating them publicly. The tacit script of all these shows is, despite all the mythology about social mobility in America, there evidently is a class of people who we relegate to geek status. For all the talk about economic reward, and we should be having a conversation about what Wall Street gets paid or whatever, this is the economic punishment side. This is the moment where we hold that these people who are just less educated, vulgar, have bad social skills and family relationships, and we just say, you don't belong.

Q: So it's similar, in that sense, to another place on TV where the same kind of thing happens on those daytime sort of spectacle shows where they'll bring on the goodies and baddies, people who are supposedly deviating from the normative bourgeois mores of American society, and the audience is supposed to boo and hiss or applaud in order to reinforce the way you're supposed to behave.

A: It's a symbolic kind of show trial. In a Sally Jessy Raphael show in the 1990s, and this is a perfect example, economics aside, about how there is something immoral, to use a quaint term, about this because what they are doing is fucking with people's heads. They took this homophobic man and had a gay coworker of his publicly confess a crush, and humiliated him, and eventually the guy went and killed him.

Q: That was bound to eventually happen, wasn't it?

A: You invade other people's psyches, and you humiliate them publicly, and what the fuck do you think is going to happen eventually? All these spectacles have that undercurrent of risk, and what's going on beyond that though is your making the statement that there is a class of people who it's okay to fuck with. And they signed a contract, so we are legally covered, and let the gladiator exhibition began. It is hard not to think of ancient Rome.

Q: The chapter I disagree with the most is the first one, the one on the Constitution. Your critique is often sound, and it's very rooted in the kind of classic revisionist view of Charles Beard and so forth, and there's a very long tradition of this in the 20th century, particularly the first 70 years, of this sort of critique. My own sense is that there are places in which you are unduly harsh. I don't think there's anything you've said about the Constitution that's wrong, but I think there is a whole other angle to it that isn't there. So it's perfectly true that in the parts of the Constitution that were constructed to protect minorities, the minority that they had in mind was the propertied class, the creditors. And, what they wanted to protect them from was the wrath of the majority, that is to say the debtors. And so they were very concerned that if you create a democracy people would vote themselves out of debt, vote themselves into property, vote propertied people out of property, and this is not acceptable. But it didn't take that long for those provisions to metastasize into legal protections for all kinds of minorities and it continues to happen, so even if there is some kind of very questionable origin of some of this stuff it's played out in a way that's often been very salutary and you don't really allow for that.

A: Well, I don't dismiss it.

Q: You don't dismiss it, but to my reading you don't give it enough credit.

A: That's a fair criticism. I would say, though, that, as is the case in dealing with mystifications, one has to be firmly insistent at times.

Q: I wouldn't ask you to back down on your assertions about the propertied class. No one who is aware of the founding and the debate at the Constitutional convention and the arguments between the Federalists and the anti-Federalists can doubt it. That's what they were worried about: non-propertied people and their use of voting rights, they weren't worried about racial minorities or women or anything like that. They were worrying about poor people legislating against rich people. That's what they were arguing about.

A: And your point is well taken that the genius of the document is that as a social basis of American democracy expanded, the Constitution was able to adapt and move forward and use the language and provisions it contains to apply to other purposes and categories. Which is true.

Q: In other words, it seems hard for me to simply look at the Constitution and say, “oh, rich person thing.” It is of course that. But at certain crucial moments, and decisively so, it's been available to others as well. Now of course not without sometimes the permission of rich people, or the thwarting of rich people against their own anger and resistance, usually by other rich persons such as during the new deal.

A: You need a defecting group within the ruling class.

Q: Well, and also they defected in order to save capitalism from itself. They were not Bolsheviks, and that was their whole point: we don't want to become Bolsheviks but the next step is a bunch of Bolsheviks. So it wasn't very much of a defection.

A: And you need an expansive welfare state in order to save capitalism from itself, and that was the new deal. I'll stipulate that FDR was wrong in this move, but he felt it was necessary to try to pack the Supreme Court and add justices after the court struck down the national recovery administration to preserve the new deal as constitutionally robust. In a way, the same Janus-faced argument applies to the Supreme Court. The court has extended the reach of the Constitution, and vindicated the rights of formerly oppressed minorities, but at the same time, especially right now, we are looking at a court that is unbelievably skewed toward the propertied classes.

Q: I don't have the same problem at all with your chapter on the Supreme Court. The court has always been an explicitly political institution, the third branch of government, and only attenuated from the political system in certain ways. There is no one except the most mystifying law professors and historians who could be naïve enough to say of Bush v. Gore, well that was an extraordinary thing. They voted along party lines and they reversed their normal positions in order to do so. Okay, wow! Who'd a thunk it? Well, me and everybody else with half a brain, that's who. Because this is a political institution based on political appointments and it's the product of the political process. The Constitution's relationship to the political process is much more indirect than the courts', although of course it is the court that determines what the Constitution says. At least for now. It's still completely a document that serves to legitimate what power wants to do, but it functions in a radically different way than the court.

A: Yes and no. Because it exists in our common life as it is interpreted by the Court. But yes, I understand your point that once these core principles were instituted and made the founding document of our nation they took on this life of their own.

Q: It seems to me the biggest critique in economic terms to be made of the way the Constitution has been interpreted and applied has to do with the personhood of corporations. Which is simply a bizarre reading of the document, but it also seems to have been inevitable. It is not in the Constitution, and you have to torture that poor document to get it in there, dragging it back and forth between the rack and the chamber of little ease before you can get it into the right shape for that, by stretching it and crushing it and stretching it and crushing it, but it couldn't have been any other way. The social and economic structure of this country demands that. You really couldn't have had another interpretation, no matter how bizarre it is. It had to be there. Much in the same way that some things liberals like about privacy rights and such, again not to be found anywhere in it, have to be read into it.

A: What's the famous phrase from Rove v. Wade, shadows of penumbras or whatever? There's clearly no guarantee of a right to privacy in the U.S. Constitution.

Q: Except that we now hold there is.

A: And there is no direct language about separation of church and state either. So you have on the left people wanting there to be privacy for the sake of abortion rights or people on the right, even though the Constitution disestablishes state religion, will say it's not in the Constitution to separate church and state.

Q: Well here's the thing: it's just a pile of language, so has no inherent meaning, other than the meaning through which it is interpreted. One chapter you don't have in your book that might be there is one on so-called constitutional “strict constructionism.” Strict constructionism is certainly a rich person's thing, but it's also a no thing, so to speak, given the fact that at the time of the adoption of any of these passages in the Constitution itself, or the Bill of Rights, or any of the subsequent amendments, almost never has there been, or at least rarely has there been, unanimity or even consensus among the people who adopted the language about what exactly they thought the language meant. There was merely a consensus of the choice of words, but at the time raging battles about what they meant even though people could agree on the literal words. So this is all fatuous, and not only fatuous from the point of view of anyone who understands how language actually functions, but also fatuous in terms of the historical record.

A: Absolutely, and in part that's why it's interesting to me that taking the strict constructionist or originalist view of the document I think you can make a strong case that the most incontrovertible stuff is the economic stuff, it's about contract law, it's about no state can make their own currency because that would cause inflation and decrease the value of credit.

Q: Except for the crucial thing: the legal personhood of corporations, which we could not do without.

A: Yes, it had to be tortured through the 14th amendment, which of course was originally designed to protect the rights of the freedmen, former slaves.

Q: And from there it becomes a charter for corporate personhood.

A: Yes, and from there you have the Citizens United decision.

Q: By the way, it really does sound like an extremely bad S/M movie: “Strict Construction.” Doesn't it?

A: And, in a sense, it is. Dudes in black robes.

Q: Well, I guess that's it. Congratulations on a great new book and I hope everybody reads it. Thanks for your time, and I look forward to doing this again very soon.

Clarifying why Arab and Muslim Americans should be smart rather than stupid

An Ibishblog reader, who I respect greatly, writes:

Hussein, I agreed with much of what you said in your recent Huffington Post column, but this really puzzled me:

"In our own country, the most vociferous proponents of the Arab and Muslim victimization narrative, those who blame the West, especially America or "the white man," for all the ills that befall the Arabs and Muslims, and those who most loudly advocate against the legal and societal harassment of Arabs and Muslims in the United States, take full advantage, as they are entitled to, of the American system and find shelter in the comfort and security of its freedoms. The damage they do in being the loudest and most anti-American voices emanating from the vulnerable Arab and Muslim immigrant communities, who already feel besieged, is to provide ammunition to the demagogues and profiteers of racism and peddlers of hate and fear of Arab and American Muslims, and to empower and encourage the worst racist and chauvinistic tendencies in this country."

Who, exactly, are these groups?  And are you suggesting that our discourses here should be restrained by the risk that our criticisms of the US can be appropriated by al-Qa'ida to justify their terrorism?

I'm glad you asked. First of all, I can only speak for myself in this case because the commentary in question was co-authored by my colleague, ATFP Pres. Ziad Asali. Indeed, the passage you cite from our collaboration was originally drafted by him, although I agree with and stand by every single word of it. But let me give you my own personal view of what I think we mean in this important passage.

The groups we are referring to are many and various, which is why we were not specific in naming them. They run the gamut from the Islamic religious right to the Arab nationalist left, and therefore cannot be placed in a straightforward ideological category or box. It's more an attitudinal issue: a way of looking at our country from a jaundiced point of view, with an attitude of hostility, unjustified hyper-criticism, an obsession with its faults and disregard for its virtues, and the knee-jerk reaction that blames everything that is wrong with the Arab or Muslim world on Western intervention alone. The fact is there are very loud voices among the Arab and Muslim Americans that not only blame the West in general and the United States in particular for everything that goes wrong in the Middle East, including much of which is plainly and unmistakably self-inflicted by the Arabs and the Muslims without any help from anybody else, and that these are influential voices. They sing the siren song that it's not our fault, that someone else is to blame, and that all we have to do is sit back and complain loudly enough and everything will ultimately be all right. If you're not familiar with such voices, you don't read the Arab blogosphere at all, because that's mainly what's in it.

The irony were getting to in this passage, I think, is how easy it is to vilify the West from the comforts of the West; to hypocritically take advantage of the financial and professional opportunities afforded by a country like the United States and, even more hypocritically of the political freedoms it provides, and yet to maintain an attitude of utter hostility towards it at every level and blame it for anything and everything, including the bad weather. This is a discourse that holds that even bad actors in the Arab world, whether it is the oppressive regimes or the demented and violent extremist groups are all either respectively acting at the behest of, or simply producing an inevitable and natural reaction to the policies of, the West. It's a set of arguments that essentially alleviates Arabs and Muslims from any responsibility for their predicament, and that reduces the Arab and Muslim American role to one of being almost entirely critical of our own country in a very unhealthy and unrealistic way, and in a manner that ensures political self marginalization and total and utter irrelevancy.

In other words, there is a tremendous degree of hypocrisy in the radical chic anti-American attitude expressed in so many online forums by younger (and older, for that matter) activists who sit in the comfort of US universities or other American places and spaces and fulminate against the evils of the United States day and night. It's not a question of love it or leave it. That's preposterous. But it is a question of having the minimal integrity of recognizing that the country you choose to live in obviously has something to offer you that you're taking advantage of, not least a degree of political freedom to castigate it without any potential repercussions of any serious variety. The fact that some people hide behind pseudonyms or do so anonymously only underscores their hypocrisy. There is a striking lack of personal, political and professional integrity at work here that deserves to be pointed out. It's not courageous, although it might be tragically hip. From a political point of view, it's completely self-defeating and while it may gain one fans in the online echo chamber of social media and the blogosphere, insofar as it has any influence at all, it helps consign the entire community to the political margins, which is where some people openly say they are determined to stay because the American political system is inherently corrupt and/or corrupting.

The damage such voices do to the Arab and Muslim American communities is almost incalculable, because not only do they encourage self-marginalization and determined, calculated irrelevancy, leaving an open field for our adversaries (something they have enjoyed for decades and continue to take full advantage of), but because by being reflexively, irrationally and unfairly anti-American they feed into the narrative that Arabs and Muslims in the United States are a potential fifth column. None of this is to say that principled opposition to misguided US foreign policies is not important or essential. Anyone who's followed my career over the past couple of decades will know that I have not hesitated to voice strong, passionate and sustained critiques of policies I thought were indefensible and damaging to the national interest such as the misguided, and indeed I think disastrous, invasion of Iraq. But the only attitude worth taking if one is in the least bit interested in political viability is that of the loyal opposition. It's one thing to make a patriotic critique of a policy on the grounds that it will not in fact strengthen the country or achieve consensus policy goals. It is another to denounce the entire political system of the country, imply that it needs to be overthrown, attempt to influence foreign policy by simply vilifying policymakers and the entire system of policymaking and stand militantly outside it waving real or virtual impotent placards, or to give our fellow citizens every reason to feel that we might be, as the anti-Arab racists and Islamophobes like to suggest, fundamentally disloyal.

Principled, patriotic, measured and sensible criticism of US foreign policy or other aspects of American behavior, conduct or culture is not only a useful thing: it's a patriotic duty. And I don't think there is the least danger that any such discourse can be “appropriated by Al Qaeda” to justify their violence. This certainly isn't what I think we were trying to suggest. But I do think it is essential for Arab and Muslim Americans to shed their tin ear — their apparently chronic inability to hear how our words will sound to our fellow Americans — and begin to pay serious attention to crafting a message that conveys our fundamental interests and concerns in a receivable manner that can have a positive impact rather than reinforcing the worst stereotypes and stoking the deepest fears of disloyalty. Angry people will probably regard such a suggestion as an appeal to kowtow to chauvinistic American attitudes or unreasonable expectations. I don't think that's the case at all.

All that is required is to embrace one's position as a loyal American with as much seriousness of purpose and sincerity as possible, and begin first and foremost always with the national interest at heart. From then it is a fairly simple matter to craft arguments centered around the national interest (and I mean as commonly understood, and not the alternative Dennis Kucinich left wing alternative version or the Ron Paul right-wing one) that advance issues we believe in such as the urgent need to end the Israeli occupation that began in 1967 and establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Or, for that matter, to have advocated against the Iraq war and in favor of its rapid drawdown. Or to advocate in favor of an intelligent and fast-tracked drawdown in Afghanistan. Or to oppose irrational and counterproductive “national security” measures that unfairly target Arab and Muslim Americans based on their identity. And so on and so forth. It's not terribly complicated, once you accept the proposition that we are Americans, that our first duty is to our own country, and that there is nothing we legitimately want that is incompatible with our American national interest.

But the truth is that the Arab and Muslim communities in the United States ARE vulnerable on many fronts, especially to charges of disloyalty. It's totally unfair and irrational, but it is the reality and we ignore it at our peril. Our point was that irresponsible, juvenile and unthinking rhetoric that plays into the hands of the anti-Arab racists and Islamophobes is something our community just can't afford, and yet many of the loudest voices on social media, the blogosphere and other decentralized forms of communication produce exactly that. This is a definite danger, because it gives ammunition to the worst of the racists and bigots. And, of course, politically it not only doesn't achieve anything, it makes matters worse. It's not a matter of declining to say something that really needs to be said out of fear of  the reaction of others. It's a question of having a healthy respect for the sensitivities and sensibilities of our fellow Americans — something we frequently and correctly demand Westerners and especially Americans show to Arabs and Muslims — and trying to understand the difference between a receivable message that can have a positive impact as opposed to venting, preaching to the choir and providing the likes of Daniel Pipes, Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller with more ammunition to spread their fear and hatred. It's just a question of being smart rather than stupid.

Stop assuming Christians are the enemy

The appalling attacks against Christians in Egypt and Iraq signal a disturbing new campaign on the part of the most extreme Islamists in the Arab world to massacre, and presumably attempt to drive out, Christian communities. It is important to understand the linkage between these two apparently unconnected events, because they fit broader patterns in both their own societies but also, and more ominously, a broader pattern sweeping the Arab world and other parts of the Islamic world.

It’s perfectly true that the attacks on Christians in Iraq are a subset of the widespread sectarian violence that has accompanied the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the difficulty of creating a new order in that country. Most sectarian violence has focused on Sunni-Shia tensions and a kind of ethnic cleansing in neighborhoods of Baghdad and other parts of the country, creating sectarian zones. But this intra-Muslim violence in Iraq has been mainly in the context of a battle for power in the post-Saddam era, with sectarian communities feeling vulnerable and seeking protection in relatively homogenous enclaves policed by militias.

The violence against Christians is of a different order. A church massacre in Baghdad last October was followed this Christmas by bomb attacks against Christian homes, leaving at least two more dead and 16 injured. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are conducting a campaign to try to drive the remaining Christians out of Iraq, and at least 6,000 have fled to northern Iraq or neighboring countries. Perhaps half of the community has fled since the American invasion. There is no way to read this violence as anything other than sectarian cleansing through murder and terrorism.

In Egypt, the context is both very different and distressingly similar. Tensions between the majority Muslim community and the large and heavily-discriminated-against Coptic Christian minority have been increasing, particularly in and around Alexandria, in recent months. The Alexandria church bombing has to be seen in that context, and more broadly in the way many Islamists view Christians as a toehold of the West in what otherwise ought to be a purely “Islamic” society in the making.

The most direct link is that the lunatics of the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq,” which is what the self-described Salafist-Jihadists or Al-Qaeda elements in Iraq are calling themselves these days, are justifying their attacks on Iraqi Christians by pointing to alleged persecution by Coptic Christians of converts to Islam in Egypt. It’s a preposterous excuse, of course, but it certainly provides a context for connecting the anti-Christian rampage in the two countries.

The Christian communities in the Arab world are simply soft targets – relatively undefended, unloved, and regarded by far too many Muslim compatriots as suspicious, unwelcome and possibly disloyal. The days in which Arab identity could trump sectarian animosities are waning fast, though there remain huge segments of Muslim society in both Egypt and Iraq, as well as elsewhere in the Arab world, that cling to a more inclusive sensibility.

In Iraq, the extremists see an easy opportunity in attacking Christians in an era when attacks against other Sunnis, Shia or Western forces have become, for many complicated reasons, much more difficult. In Egypt too, the relatively undefended character of the Coptic community has made it a distressingly inviting target.

In Egypt, this problem has been underlined by the fact that while large segments of Egyptian society have reacted with outrage, the government’s response so far has included unconvincingly blaming outside elements, followed by violent attacks by security forces against Coptic protesters and their allies. Just because there is an obvious link between anti-Christian violence in Egypt and Iraq doesn’t mean the Alexandria massacre was the work of “outside agitators” – Egypt has plenty of Islamist and indeed “Salafist-jihadist” fanatics of its own. That the same anti-Christian agenda is manifesting itself in separate Arab countries simultaneously makes the problem worse and more widespread, not simpler and more isolated as governments would probably like to pretend.

All of this anti-Christian violence, however, comes in the context of rising rhetoric throughout the Arab world and other parts of the Muslim world that is paranoid and chauvinistic, and which sees all religious minorities as unacceptably heterogeneous and dangerous. Christians, of course, are particularly suspect since they are alleged or presumed to have particular ties to or sympathy with the West, which is cast as the eternal and implacable enemy.

Though the immediate contexts for the attacks in Egypt and Iraq are quite different, the Arab Muslim cultural context is exactly the same: an increasing desire to impose a false religious and cultural homogeneity on a heterogeneous Arab world and to repress or drive out disparate elements, including Christians, Shia, smaller Muslim sects like the Ahmadiyya or various Sufi groups, and secularists and other liberals. Parts of Arab political and Muslim religious culture that would repudiate violence nonetheless promote the thinking that ultimately rationalizes it by embracing a paranoid and chauvinist worldview.

The real blame lies with the killers themselves, but the ultimate responsibility for this carnage must be placed disturbingly far and wide throughout contemporary Arab political and religious attitudes, in an all-too-common delusional perspective that sees enemies and traitors in every corner and is convinced that the world is out to get us.

Honesty and Hypocrisy in Facing Terrorism (with Ziad Asali)

The murderous bomb attacks against Christian communities in Egypt and Iraq have been roundly condemned by most political and religious leaders, commentators and public opinion in the Arab world. They have also been met with an outpouring of passionate condemnation by ordinary people who have taken to the streets to express anger and demand justice. People have sensed the danger to their whole society inherent in such atrocities. The Alexandria church massacre could be a wake-up call to reverse dangerous trends, or it may be the beginning of unraveling of the bonds that keep people of different faiths and backgrounds together as citizens.

However, the effort to place the blame solely on outsiders or extremists for these attacks glosses over a much deeper and more troubling context. While there is little sympathy for the outrageous crimes of the fanatic extremists outside of their own ranks, these murderous radicals are in fact taking some prevalent societal attitudes to a cold bloodied and logical, albeit extreme, conclusion. Emerging out of a pervasive reality of powerlessness and inequity, political trends in the Arab world have given rise to a belligerent chauvinistic sensibility that has increasingly valorized the Islamic identity and regarded the rest of the world, especially the West, with deep suspicion and hostility.

These attitudes are promoted from the top down, through government-sponsored media, educational and religious institutions, and from the bottom up, in the home at the dinner table and online through a social media echo-chamber featuring a radical chic discourse aimed at restless young people. The worst ideas generally come from Islamist religious institutions, leaders and political opposition groups, which frequently argue that there is not only a conspiracy against the Arabs to prevent their development, but a global campaign to destroy Islam itself. Moderate voices who view the world in political rather than religious terms are outnumbered and function outside the parameters and comfort of political correctness. They try valiantly to stand for universal values while having to contend with constant intimidation because of their principled opposition to extremism.

The hegemonic narrative of relentless victimization at the hands of an all-powerful West frequently focuses on the theme of double standards, to which Arabs certainly have been subjected. However, this same ideal of a single standard is rarely applied in an introspective or self-critical manner. The contribution of Arabs and Muslims to their own failures, powerlessness, socio-economic inequities and dysfunctional systems are mentioned without any serious pursuit of corrective measures. The real blame for the failure, however, is consistently laid at the door of a hostile and manipulative West, led by America, and their regional amorphous client elite.

The question of religious minorities is an ideal place to begin examining the double standard argument. When given the opportunity, Muslims keep flocking to the West, where Muslim communities are growing and thriving, although they also face an increasing threat of discrimination and cultural hostility.

Christian and other religious minorities in the Arab world, however, are generally shrinking and withering, and are now facing a murderous campaign of attacks that seem consciously designed to try to drive them out of the region, or at least certain countries, once and for all. The fact that the vast majority of the victims of Islamist terror have been Muslims must not belittle the distinctive brutality of these attacks on Christians. These people were killed simply because they were Christians, with the evident aim of scaring them away from the country and possibly the region. Muslims have generally been killed because they happened to be in the way of those who use terror to achieve power and political objectives, including significant intra-Muslim sectarian violence in Iraq that intended to force communities to relocate.

It can’t be enough for Arab and Muslim governments, and some media and organizations, to simply condemn obviously unacceptable outrages such as the recent massacres. In several Muslim countries religious minorities face discrimination, restriction of rights, laws against blasphemy, apostasy and “insults to religion,” prohibitive constraints against building and reconstructing houses of worship, and the aggressive state-sponsored promotion of not only Islam, but certain narrow versions of it. All these realities need to be opposed in a consistent manner by those who would credibly defend Muslim rights in the West without engaging in double standards of their own.

Without even addressing circular arguments about who is defending themselves against whose aggression, the work that must be done to counteract narratives of intolerance and exclusion everywhere must be performed officially and legally, as well as at the social and community level both here and in the Middle East. It would be almost impossible to find explicit support from Arab or Muslim Americans for wanton acts of violence against civilians, but easy to find echoes of the sentiments of victimization and self-righteousness from which they ultimately derive. Even among Arab and Arab-American Christians and other minorities it is readily possible to encounter such views.

Of course, others have a great deal of work to do as well. The problems of Islamophobia spreading in the West, and growing blatant anti-Arab racism in Israel, need to be confronted at every level, without fear or favor. Marauding lawless bands of Israeli settlers, and American religious and ideological fanatics who advocate racism, must be held accountable. It is vital that communities, identity groups and societies take more responsibility to proactively define boundaries regarding what will be accepted as “respectable” discourse or conduct and what clearly crosses the line and has to be confronted as socially and politically dangerous even, and perhaps especially, if that means breaching expectations of ethnic, cultural or religious solidarity.

Critics will complain that we are conflating apples and oranges, casting the net of blame too widely or being unfair. What we are in fact doing is the unavoidable task of drawing connections between words that begin with hypocrisy and chauvinistic bluster, continue on into the promotion of intolerance, fear and hatred, and finally, in the hands of the most extreme, erupt into unconscionable acts of violence. This progression needs to be addressed as much at its source as its outcome if the trend is to be reversed.

Too few voices and organizations in Arab and Muslim societies, and the Arab-American community for that matter, repudiate much of the rhetoric that ultimately, when taken to its logical conclusion by demented murderers, leads to this kind of appalling violence. Their default position is to cite various injustices and to ask others to understand the motives for violence by pointing to a double standard argument or other rationalizations. This approach means that most of Arab societies, and many in the Arab and Muslim American communities, are in effect opting for silence. This doesn’t mean that this silent or ambivalent majority condones murderous acts by extremist fanatics, far from it. But these massacres in Egypt and Iraq demonstrate that everyone has a responsibility to be more vigilant and to recognize that the language of hate and intolerance can ultimately lead to unspeakable violence and should not be tolerated and countered by responsible choices.

In our own country, the most vociferous proponents of the Arab and Muslim victimization narrative, those who blame the West, especially America or “the white man,” for all the ills that befall the Arabs and Muslims, and those who most loudly advocate against the legal and societal harassment of Arabs and Muslims in the United States, take full advantage, as they are entitled to, of the American system and find shelter in the comfort and security of its freedoms. The damage they do in being the loudest and most anti-American voices emanating from the vulnerable Arab and Muslim immigrant communities, who already feel besieged, is to provide ammunition to the demagogues and profiteers of racism and peddlers of hate and fear of Arab and American Muslims, and to empower and encourage the worst racist and chauvinistic tendencies in this country. Minorities in this country have achieved their communal and collective objectives by working the system as they redefine it, and gaining support and power by courageous but peaceful confrontation with injustices, by use of the law and the political system, and not by rejecting the system as inherently corrupt and uncorrectable. And certainly not by murdering unarmed military personnel or civilians, or by plotting to blow up planes or public squares.

For Arab and Muslim Americans silence is not a safe option. No group is more vulnerable to the consequences of the next terror attack, or to policies based on fear and exclusion. What happens, and does not happen, in the Arab and Muslim world matters here at home. This assertion needs no explanation after September 11, 2001. The relentless wars against minorities, and not just Christians in the Middle East, whether official, societal or even just criminal, waged by those who aim to divide the world into large, mutually-exclusive and warring religious and ethnic blocks is not just a threat to America and its values. It is a specific and imminent danger to Arab and Muslim Americans, who must, for their own urgent necessity, oppose such politics and rhetoric. They need to develop a higher degree of honesty in their discourse and demand that a more elevated sense of responsibility be conveyed and articulated by their elites and leaderships.

The present tragic course of events, with mal-distribution of power and resources in the Arab and Muslim world, and a deepening sense of victimization that is increasingly directed at the West, especially America, and its friends and allies, will eventually break through the coercive measures that have thus far maintained the intrinsically unstable status quo. If serious change is not effected in short order, this dam will burst and after that comes the deluge. Ideas, deeds, programs and a modicum of peace in Palestine are urgently needed to give a fighting chance to forces of moderation and sanity everywhere.

To survive, and to compete globally, Arab and Muslim societies need to embrace their cultural, religious and ethnic mosaics, and view their diversity as strength rather than weakness. They need to embrace a culture that values not only individual rights and foregrounds the role of the citizen in political and social life, but minority rights as well. The values of pluralism, peaceful resolution of disputes and inclusivity are the only effective antidote to the poison of extremism and extremist violence. Embracing these values will require a change in social and political culture, and for that, every Arab, and Arab and Muslim American, must take up their share of the responsibility. They must speak publicly and courageously for these values here and in the Middle East. The price of silence is prohibitive. The forces of fanaticism, violence and exclusion must not be allowed to prevail.