It’s hard to imagine two more unlikely political bedfellows than commentator Paul Berman and Columbia University Professor Hamid Dabashi. Their worldviews, a priori assumptions and political affiliations are so distinct, indeed frequently antagonistic, that it’s even difficult to imagine them having a calm conversation.
And yet in two recent, and in many other senses radically different, essays, Berman and Dabashi have essentially made the same argument: that the trend in the Arab uprisings, and the Muslim world generally, is shifting away from organized, exclusivist Islamist groups and groping its way toward a far more inclusive, tolerant and pluralistic political vision. It’s claim I’ve also made frequently.
In the weeds, Berman and Dabashi inevitably find themselves in radically contradictory spaces.
Both dubiously choose to link developments in Mali with the transformations in numerous Arab states. But they read the situation in Mali completely differently. Berman celebrates the French intervention (and notes many Malians did as well), while Dabashi dismisses the whole thing as another instance of Western colonial exploitation.
Both also see an important parallel, and indeed a more plausible one, between developments in the Arab world and anti-government sentiment in Iran. But, not surprisingly, here again they find themselves on opposite sides, with Berman chiding the Obama administration for not openly supporting the “Green Revolution.” When the Iranian uprising was ongoing, Dabashi was one of its most vocal supporters, but never tired of correctly pointing out that its leadership did not want overt American support of any kind.
Berman is fixated on parsing between “radical” and “moderate” Muslims. This terminology might be overdetermined, and overburdened with political baggage, but is nonetheless an effort to grope toward a crucial distinction between an exclusivist, chauvinist, and reactionary mentality versus a more open-minded, engaged, and pluralistic one. Dabashi, though, insists that “the ludicrous Neocon Americanism of pitting ‘moderate’ versus ‘radical’ Muslims is simply a silly camouflage concealing a far more serious epistemic breakthrough.”
Yet a clearheaded reading demonstrates that, like it or not, they are, fundamentally, referring to the same thing.
And, on the bigger-picture issues, they make many of the same crucial points. Islamism is not Islam. Most Muslims are not and do not wish to be Islamists and do not wish to be ruled by them. There are crucial pre-Islamist and pre-colonial Islamic traditions that can and should inform a more generous, tolerant and globally engaged Muslim worldview. And recent developments in the Arab world and elsewhere demonstrate that a fledgling and nascent, yet profound and deeply rooted, backlash against Islamists and obscurantism is unmistakably beginning to coalesce in very significant constituencies among the world’s Muslims.
It is surely significant that two such radically different thinkers would, in the same week, pen articles from absolutely contradictory perspectives that reach virtually identical conclusions. And the main notion both Berman and Dabashi are challenging is a terrible misapprehension that has united many American realists, liberals, paleo-conservatives and, indeed, some first-term Obama administration officials: that Islamism is the natural and “authentic” political orientation of the overwhelming majority of the Muslims of the world.
The corollary, of course, is that Islamist victories, over the long run, in post-dictatorship Arab states for example, are irresistible and inevitable. A more insidious second corollary, which is finally starting to erode but which has had significant sway in Washington, is that the rise of “moderate” Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood is an important bulwark against even more extreme groups such as Salafists or Salafist-Jihadists. Their victories were therefore seen by some American policy analysts as desirable.
I’ve been arguing vociferously for the past two years that none of this is true. Berman characterizes the present moment well, as “an age of struggle, anti-Islamists against Islamists, with the Islamists still on top in various countries, but no obvious long-run victor in sight.” Or, as Dabashi aptly puts it, “Both the ruling regime in Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or elsewhere are out of touch with reality, left behind by a post-colonial history that has no longer any use or space for them.”
Realists and others argue that non-Islamist forces are simply too divided, inexperienced, unprepared, and disorganized to mount a successful bulwark against a steady campaign by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia to take over state bureaucracies, especially the military and security forces, bit by bit and consolidate permanent control. Indeed, this is what Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannochi promised Tunisian Salafists his party would do, given time.
The era of Islamist victories is not necessarily over. But many underestimate the ability of essentially non-Islamist societies to resist them, even in a relatively disorganized manner. More importantly for the long run, as both Berman and Dabashi note in their own ways, the forest is starting to look a lot different than any individual tuft of trees.