Liberal Hawk Down | The Nation


Liberal Hawk Down

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Berman's central argument in his book Terror and Liberalism is perhaps the most historically illiterate and strategically pernicious of all the lines advanced by liberal hawks and their de facto allies on the right. This is the suggestion that secular radical Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism are essentially the same phenomenon, since both are supposedly expressions of an antiliberal, totalitarian international ethos and tradition stemming originally from the Europe of Fascism and Communism. "The Baathists and the Islamists were two branches of a single impulse, which was Muslim totalitarianism--the Muslim variation on the European idea," he writes. The "global war on terror" is therefore a continuation of America's past struggle against Nazism and Communism. In Berman's view,

This essay is adapted from Anatol Lieven's next book, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, to be published this month by Oxford University Press.

About the Author

Anatol Lieven
Anatol Lieven, a professor at King's College, London, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author...

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The totalitarian wave began to swell some 25 years ago and by now has swept across a growing swath of the Muslim world. The wave is not a single thing. It consists of several movements or currents, which are entirely recognizable. These movements draw on four tenets: a belief in a paranoid conspiracy theory, in which cosmically evil Jews, Masons, Crusaders and Westerners are plotting to annihilate Islam or subjugate the Arab people; a belief in the need to wage apocalyptic war against the cosmic conspiracy; an expectation that post-apocalypse, the Islamic caliphate of ancient times will re-emerge as a utopian new society; and a belief that meanwhile, death is good, and should be loved and revered.

By dating the start of this "wave" to twenty-five years ago, Berman identifies it temporally with the Iranian revolution. This was, of course, a Shiite revolution in a Persian land, fed by Iranian nationalism; yet Berman attributes to this wave an Arab identity. Baath Arab nationalism began more than four decades earlier. It has absolutely no interest in restoring the "Islamic caliphate of ancient times." This is indeed the dream of Al Qaeda and its Islamist allies, but the Baath is dedicated to creating one modern, united Arab nation under the quasi-Fascist rule of the Baath Party. In other words, with the exception of a common hostility to Israel, this whole picture is a farrago of nonsense. Daniel Ellsberg has written that one central problem for the United States in Vietnam was that there wasn't a single senior or middle-ranking US official who could have passed an elementary exam in Vietnamese history and culture. The American government today has no lack of Middle East experts in the State Department and the CIA; indeed, many predicted the disaster in Iraq well before the invasion. The problem is that the ranks of the US intelligentsia are packed with pseudo-experts who are willing to subjugate the most basic historical facts to the needs of their ideological or nationalist agendas.

Berman, this "man of the Left," offers a portrait of "Islamic fascism" that is hardly distinguishable from that of such hard-line right-wing members of the Israeli lobby as Daniel Pipes. In terms of historical literacy, the argument is the equivalent of suggesting that because nineteenth-century European socialism and clerical conservatism shared a deep hostility to bourgeois liberalism, they somehow formed part of the same ideological and political tendency. In terms of strategic sense, it is equivalent to an argument that the United States and its allies should have fought Nazism and Soviet Communism not sequentially, but simultaneously. This strategy was indeed promoted by Churchill in the winter of 1939-40. If it had been followed, it would have insured Britain's defeat and a dark age for the world.

In other words, this "analysis" deliberately promotes and justifies the most dangerous aspect of the Bush Administration's approach to the war on terrorism: the lumping together of radically different elements in the Muslim world into one homogeneous enemy camp. As we can see in Iraq, this has been a magnificently successful example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It has created a perfect situation for Al Qaeda and its allies, on a scale they could never have achieved without massive US help.

Of course, as far as the Baath tradition is concerned, the existence of a strong inspiration by European Fascist thought is not in doubt. It was explicit in the original Baathist ideological writings, and especially that of the Syrian Michel Aflaq, one of the founders of the Baath Party. But Aflaq was a Christian Arab, and his pan-Arab nationalism, though violent, racist and extreme, was also secular and modernizing. He believed religion, whether Islamic or Christian, had no place in Arab politics.

In both Iraq and Syria, the overall tone of Baathism remained secular. In this, the Baath were following the original Italian Fascist model. The Fascists had their roots in bitterly anticlerical Italian radical nationalism, Mussolini himself having been a Socialist leader until the First World War. When in power, like Saddam Hussein's Baath in the 1990s, the Italian Fascists made pragmatic deals with religion in the form of the Catholic Church; but in Italy and Germany, Fascism was never in any sense influenced by or close to the Christian religion. This does not, of course, make the Baathists or the Fascists more likable. It does make them very different from the forces of political religion.

Like their Fascist predecessors, on the one hand, the Baath ideologues have regarded religious allegiances and beliefs as backward, superstitious obstacles to modernization and development. On the other, they have seen them as fomenters of sectarian discord in what should be the united Arab nation. This ideological stance underlies the ferocious persecution in the past of the Islamists in Baathist Syria and Iraq, and the bitter hatred between the Baath and the fundamentalists. Of course, both the Baath and the fundamentalists have been hostile to the West and Israel, but for largely different reasons. In the case of the Baath, this reflects first and foremost secular pan-Arab nationalism. Islamist radicals for their part often draw strength from local ethnic and national resentments, whether Kashmiri, Chechen, Pashtun, Palestinian or Sunni Iraq Arab; but their central allegiance is always to the idea of the undivided umma, or transnational community of all (or, for Al Qaeda, right-thinking Sunni) Muslims.

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