January 17, 2004

Arab Nationalism v. Islamism

Paul Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism, has an interesting post in Wednesday's issue of Slate's series, Liberal Hawks Reconsider. He criticizes the Bush Administrations "mendacities" arguing that "the claim that Saddam and Osama were in cahoots was one of Bush's principal mendacities."

He goes on to explain the differences between Baathist "radical Arab nationalism" and al Quaeda's "radical Islamism" and why they make undertandable the recently discovered directive from Saddam that Iraqi insurgents not cooperate with foreign jihadists. Their differences make them unlikely to work together and also made possible the somewhat successful (at least in the short term) Machiavellian tactic of playing these strains off against each other during the Cold War years.

But he cautions that these tactics will be unsuccessful in the long term because, in fact, the two movements do have some dangerous similarites and share common beliefs, including:

1) A Paranoid Conspiracy Theory, according to which the Arab world (for the Baath) or the world of Islam (for the Islamists) is under a massive assault by a sinister and cosmic conspiracy of Zionists (and/or Jews, and/or Masons) and Crusaders (and/or Western imperialists).

2) An Apocalyptic Fantasy. The cosmic conspiracy will be defeated in order to reinstate the Golden Age of Islam in the seventh century, described as the Islamic Caliphate (by the Islamists) or as the Arab Empire based on Islam (by the Baath)—though both movements picture the reinstated seventh century as a high-tech extravaganza, a kind of modernity.

3) A Tyrannical Plan: The reinstated Golden Age will require an extreme police-state, described as the pious reign of Shariah or Quranic law (by the Islamists) or as the reign of brotherly Arab love (by the Baath).

4) A Cult of Death: the belief that masses of people should die, and death will strengthen the larger cause. The Iran-Iraq War was conducted on this basis, which is why it was one of the ghastliest things that has happened in modern times. And, as a consequence of that same Cult of Death, both movements, Baathism and radical Islamism alike, took to promoting random terror attacks.

These shared tenets, he claims, makes them part of a broader movement, despite their differences and mutual hatred. In fact, the beliefs are recognizable as new variants of something familiar:

They are the central tenets of European fascism (and, in some respects, of Stalinism), which have been adapted into Muslim and Arab dialects by a variety of theoreticians. And this single movement, which I call Muslim totalitarianism, has, over the last quarter century, killed millions—exactly as European totalitarianism did, in its time.

As I mentioned below, the whole conversation is worth reading no matter what you think about the war or Bush.

Posted by richard at January 17, 2004 01:23 PM

Dare I suggest that the "Bush doctrine" incorporates at least three of these four elements, albeit perhaps in subtler concentrations?

(1) Paranoid Conspiracy Theory — putting "similarities" aside, the Bush Administration actively cultivated the notion that Osama and Saddam were in cahoots, to the point where intelligent people that I know were convinced that Saddam backed the 9/11 attacks. This plays to the soundbite-driven portion of the electorate that views the entire Middle East uniformly as "towelheads" and thinks Iraq is as good a place as any to make a frightening demonstration of American power to "people who only understand force."

(2) Apocalyptic Fantasy — it's well-documented that Bush's millennialist brand of Christianity conceptualizes the world in good v. evil terms. Bush has gone so far as to pronounce other nations to be "evil," setting the stage for a final showdown with America at some undetermined later date. There are concerns that Bush's faith drives a worldview that will of necessity render the endgame confrontational, rather than conciliatory. Good must fight evil, and good must win.

(3) Tyrannical Plan — if you envision the the various forms of government along a continuum of government values, with stability/security interests predominant on one end and individual rights and dignities on the other, it's not hard to see that 9/11 empowered a push in the United States toward tyranny. This year will feature a showdown with the Supreme Court on how far this Administration can tread on civil liberties by simply reciting the word "security" over and again. Here's an article on what's at stake.

Remember, the best Armageddons have two fundamentally opposed armies that are ready for combat and wholly committed to black-white views of the world. Now I'm not one of those people in Harvard Square wearing a "BUSH IS A TERRORIST" T-shirt, and I'm not saying that now. I don't lightly throw around such labels to make a rhetorical point that alienates half the room and elicits huzzahs from the other half. That's not constructive argument, and I hope I'm doing better here.

I just think it's worth pointing out that the same generalities that usefully bring Saddam and Osama under the common-enemy umbrella — and which, as you noted, resonate with European fascism — could easily be applied by reasoned people to where the Bush Administration is taking us.

Now go ahead and blister me. Or better yet, tell me why I'm wrong and why I shouldn't be as scared as I am.

Posted by: Brad A. at January 18, 2004 03:25 PM

You forgot:

(4) A Cult of Death - George W. Bush's Texas trailed only China in executions.

And before any angry responses pour in, no, I am not trying to compare Bush to Saddam or Bin Laden. I'm merely pointing out, as was Brad A., I believe, that those four similarities do not "prove" a connection between Baathism and Islamism. Bush fits in to those four categories (OK, perhaps with a bit more forcing), but he's nothing like them and they're not a whole lot like each other.

The only thing that really connects them is that they are both bad and both muslim. You might as well just come out and say that you think all bad muslims are part of a conspiracy, if that's what you really mean. Those four categories simply look like a lot of justification to me.

They may very well have worked together at one point or another, simply because they have a common enemy. That doesn't mean they are in conspiracy together. The US worked with Iraq in the 80s against Iran - but I think you will agree there was no Baathist/American conspiracy.

The two are ideologically opposed, for the most part hate each other, and at worst may have worked together on occasion out of convenience (although I haven't seen convincing evidence of even that).

Posted by: Mike F. at January 19, 2004 07:15 PM

What happened was that the "parallels" or "common elements" or what have you were chosen at an unhelpfully high level of generality — an umbrella cast so wide that you could include just about anybody. You can even haul in such radically different and ideologically opposed elements as the Iraqi government and al Qaeda.

The three chosen species in this broad-ranging genus were two Arab regime/movements and European fascism, presumably to meet the writer's purposes, which are

(1) to develop a connection between Saddam and Osama, and
(2) to cast them as a threat deserving of a full-scale mobilization, as was appropriate during World War II.

Never mind what else gets caught in this net: we're to presume that the Baathists and al Qaeda will find one another and hook up. The real genus dictating this analysis is, and I agree with Mike, Arab and [at least] nominally Muslim. That is, the analysis is either artfully crafted as a pretext over conscious racism, or it's an attempt to rationalize feelings of racism that the writer actually harbors but does not recognize. I'm going to give the guy the benefit of the doubt and argue for the latter.

Though perhaps more sophisticated and subtle in its analysis, this discourse reminds me of an email forward I received a while ago entitled "Why We're in Iraq." The message contained a .jpeg of a tank with a laundry list of American casualties at the hands of Arabs stenciled on its back. It explained that we're in Iraq because Hezbollah killed 200+ Marines in the 80s, because Osama blew up the U.S.S. Cole and crashed planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

The undercurrent is, of course, that all the culprits are Arabs, they're fungible, so just pick one we can make a reasonable case against (or one we can actually find) and we'll kick 'em around for a while. That's enough to satisfy a nondiscriminating (or should I say "discriminating?") population of voters. And regrettably, I think it satisfies the intellects in this White House, who state their case more subtly, but it's conceptually the same thing.

So I'm the first to use the "r-word." But I'm surprised that in all our back-and-forths about the war and post-9/11 security issues, we've never discussed it.

Posted by: Brad A. at January 19, 2004 10:18 PM

Well, I disagree somewhat (surprise!). And, more importantly, you've both given great examples of why I don't put much faith with the Democrats no matter how much I disagree with Bush on some issues. Instead of examining the situation, tackling the arguments as presented, commenting thoughtfully, dealing with reality – the kneejerk reaction is to turn it into an attack on Bush.

Yes, the nets are cast wide in Berman's analysis, but we're talking orders of magnitude narrower than you both are taking it.

Without trying to be clever with the apophasis, read the points again -- and this time read beyond the first three summary words of each point.

The perpetrators of the sinister conspiracies are same: Jews, Zionists, America, the West. The sought-after paradises are different imaginings of the same long-gone Islamic Empire. The means to this end is a totalitarian state (secular or theocratic) reached through a glorious process of purges and deaths on a massive scale.

Unless you're trying to be cute, this is nothing like the Bush Administration. And by trying to boomerang the subject back into an attack on Bush, I think you risk missing the key insight that this analysis could offer.

Many people have made the argument, and I think it's one worth examining, that both modern Arab Nationalism (e.g. Baathism) and Islamist terrorism have imported many philosophical ideas from early-twentieth century European fascism and ethnic nationalism. But they lack a countervailing tradition of political liberalism to resist them. Understanding how these ideas take root (or could take root) within Arab and Muslim traditions is crucial to winning the war of ideas that I believe we are in.

There are more things to be done than just scoring points in the Shirts v. Skins game of Washington politics.

Posted by: richard at January 20, 2004 12:33 AM