Lara Logan and Osama Bin Laden


I was watching Lara Logan on 60 Minutes when news of bin Laden’s capture and death flashed on the screen.  She was detailing her being gang-raped in Tahrir Square while reporting on Egyptian pro-democracy demonstrations.  It was difficult to avoid forming connections between these two events.  Many commentators have been pointing out that the events of the so-called “Arab Spring” had already rendered bin Laden irrelevant.  But the details of the raid itself and the events leading up to it belie that notion.  How is it that bin Laden was able to hide in plain sight in the Muslim world for so long?  The answer to that question has much to do with what happened to Lara Logan. 

Lara Logan was not attacked by pro-Mubarak thugs, nor was she attacked by an Islamist mob, the kind of moronic goons that murdered UN workers when a Koran was burned by another moron.  She was attacked by Arabs celebrating the victory of democracy, or at least the defeat of autocracy.  Someone in the crowd yelled out that she was an Israeli and a Jew, and so she was raped and beaten to within an inch of her life.  Lara Logan is, of course, neither of those things.  What made her a target and a convenient repository for other Arab hatreds is that she was clearly a Western woman, not covered in the Muslim manner.  That made her fair game in Tahrir Square, the cradle of Egyptian democracy.

What the Arab pro-democracy forces have yet to learn is that there is no freedom without the freedom of women.  What the rape of Lara Logan tells us is that there is no freedom for women even among the most forward-looking groups on the Arab political spectrum.  Unless they understand that democracy requires the freedom of women, their movement will fail.

What has been little noticed about Al Qaeda and Islamists in general is that there is a group they hate even more than Americans or Jews, the primary focus of their grotesque, fascistic rhetoric.  They hate women.  Even a cursory reading of Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual inspiration for Islamism, would reveal that female sexuality is the greatest threat, to be approached with fear and loathing.  The 9/11 hijacker’s, Mohammed Atta’s last will and testament, in which he says: “I don't want any women to go to my grave at all during my funeral or on any occasion thereafter,” and “I don't want a pregnant woman or a person who is not clean to come and say good bye to me because I don't approve it,” is merely a case in point. 

Osama bin Laden’s neighbors in Abbottabad were not radical Islamists. But one reason he was able to hide in plain sight is that the hatred of women is simply background in the world in which he was hiding, the camouflage that obscured him.

As long as Muslim society does not question the hatred of women, it will be a safe haven for Islamism.  Until the pro-democracy forces in the Arab world make the freedom of women their primary concern, Al Qaeda and Islamism will not be irrelevant.  They will infect that movement and destroy its hopes.  The rape of Lara Logan is a pustulant sore in that infection.

Egypt 8/11; Neo-Anarchist Narratives and the Current Disorder

I wrote this essay while the original Tahrir Square protests (1/11) were on going.  It was submitted to the New York Times as an Op-Ed piece, but was not accepted.

From the New York Times, 01/28/11

 To the Editor:

As we follow the fight to bring down the dictatorship in Egypt (The New York Times on the Web, Jan. 28), I think it’s useful to keep in mind that all that tear gas, all those troops, all those rubber bullets aimed at the people marching for democracy have been bought and paid for by us, the American taxpayers.

We might ask ourselves how we can say we support democracy and at the same time bankroll corrupt regimes like President Hosni Mubarak’s.

Maybe one good thing about popular uprisings in the Middle East — besides actually improving the lives of people in the region — is that they make us confront the hypocrisy of our government talking democracy but financing dictators.

James Mangan

Hudson, Wis., Jan. 28, 2011


To the Editor:

Re “Waves of Unrest Spread to Yemen, Shaking a Region” (front page, Jan. 28):

Protests are springing up all over the Middle East. People are demanding basic freedoms that would reform largely repressive regimes.

So I found myself asking if those suffering from Islamophobia might be rethinking their views.

Is it possible that those who believe that every Muslim could be a terrorist might now at least be wondering if the Middle East is populated mostly by people craving what all of us want, a world built upon basic freedoms with respect for divergent views? It is time to stanch the flow of vitriol aimed at our Muslim brothers and sisters, to put out the fires being stoked by those who know little or nothing about Islam and to stop listening to the peddlers of hatred and distrust.

Bob Prail

Wayne, N.J., Jan. 28, 2011



It is useful, in understanding the rhetorical nearsightedness of the American Left, to look at these two recent letters to the New York Times.  It is with some sadness that I take on this task because what I most want to see is a vibrant American Left cured of these rhetorical blemishes.  Let us also understand that the rhetorical diseases of the Right are far more dangerous and grotesque.  What I most regret is the Left’s inability to counter those false narratives because of false narratives of their own.  I credit much of that inability to the neo-Anarchist legacy of Noam Chomsky, which automatically and uncritically grants moral superiority to whomever is opposing state power, no matter how incoherent and inchoate.

Mr. Mangan wants us to see the irony of America’s having supplied the tear gas and rubber bullets being used against those “marching for democracy.”  I, too, feel impelled to decry our government’s having supplied the means of coercion to some very bad actors, but are the people in the streets of Cairo, those on the receiving end of the tear gas and rubber bullets, marching for democracy?  Not likely.  They are mostly acting out of rage, and they are certainly not marching.  Marching implies some kind of orderly, collective behavior.  Nothing of the sort is happening on the streets of Cairo.  I wish it were.  Democracy is not in the offing.

Mr. Mangan is quite certain the popular uprising in Egypt is going to “actually [improve] the lives of the people in the region.”  I wish I could share his faith.  Here’s how the neo-Anarchist narrative asserts itself in Mr. Mangan’s letter.  In that narrative, the world is divided into the powerful and the powerless.  States are the primary holders of power and guarantee the legitimacy of power-wielding institutions.  Evil flows to the pole of state power; virtue flows to the pole of those opposing state power.  Since the protesters in Cairo oppose state power, they are deemed automatically virtuous, and so are their motives. According to this logic, democracy and improving lives must be their goals.  Topple state power, and the innate virtue of the powerless will enable democracy to flourish.  If only it were so.

Mr. Prail shares Mr. Mangan’s neo-Anarchist narrative and also assumes the innate moral superiority of the oppressed powerless of the Middle East.  He sees them as “people craving what all of us want, a world built upon basic freedoms with respect for divergent views.”  Mr. Prail is guilty of mirror-imaging: he looks at the Middle East and sees himself.  Where, we might ask, does Mr. Prail look at the Muslim Middle East and see “respect for divergent views?”  Where does he see a desire for the “basic freedoms” of women?  Again, the neo-Anarchist faith in the innate virtue of the oppressed drives the need to see liberal ideals where they do not exist and to gloss over serious divergences from those liberal ideals.

Worse, Mr. Prail contends that those who do not see liberal ideals reflected in the current unrest are “Islamophobes” or worse, “peddlers of hatred and distrust.”  Let us admit that Islamophobia is real and is a serious problem.  It is also disturbingly prominent in right-wing false narratives.  But recognizing real differences between ourselves and the Muslim societies of the Middle East does not make one an Islamophobe.  In his desire to “to stanch the flow of vitriol aimed at our Muslim brothers and sisters,” he has started his own flow of vitriol aimed at anyone who hasn’t accepted his neo-Anarchist faith in the virtue of the oppressed.  This irony has escaped Mr. Prail.

A more sober appraisal of the current unrest in the Middle East understands that democracy is a three-legged stool.  Establishing democracy requires credible elections, an independent judiciary, and a vibrant and flourishing civil society.  The autocratic regimes of the Middle East have none of these things.  The idea that toppling them will implant democracy and improve lives is terribly naïve.  Only a fervent belief in the neo-Anarchist narrative could lead one to discount or forget the terrible example of Iran.

What’s most likely to happen in the current unrest is that only the Islamist groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, have sufficient organization to step into the power vacuum caused by the protests, since they have maintained an underground organization throughout the years of autocracy.  They do not share Mr. Mangan’s dreams of democracy and improving lives. 

In the Egyptian context, Mubarak’s power rests on three groups, the presidency, the intelligence services who are loyal to him, and the army, whose loyalty is primarily to itself.  So far, Mubarak has relied on the intelligence services and the police to put down the demonstrations.  They have proved insufficient, so Mubarak, to his discomfort, has been forced to call in the less dependable army.  In the news this morning, January 29th, we see that Mubarak has appointed a vice-president from the intelligence services and a prime minister from the army in an attempt to control his reliance on these groups.  But the army has been hanging back from attacking the protesters, so it is likely that it will take advantage of Mubarak’s weakness to take power for itself.  The real question will be to what extent Islamist groups have infiltrated the military. [Unfortunately, these words have proved prescient.  The military is firmly in power in Egypt and is cozying up to the Muslim Brotherhood. (9/10/11)]

The possibility of Islamist takeovers from the current crisis is frightening, and frighteningly discounted in the neo-Anarchist imagination, as evidenced by Messrs. Mangan and Prail.  That portion of the American Left tends to see Islamists as partners in a grand, international, anti-capitalist coalition.  They forget that fascism always starts, at least, as an anti-capitalist social movement.  Do they also forget the Muslim Brotherhood’s collaboration with Nazi Germany?  Do they not see the genocidal intentions of the Hama scharter?  Do they not hear in Hassan Nasrallah’s “We are going to win because they love life and we love death," an echo of the Spanish Fascist battle cry, “Viva la Muerte!” 

There is a corollary to Lord Acton’s famous dictum, “Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  There is another force equally as corrupting as power, and that is powerlessness.  The current unrest in the Middle East is a paroxysm of powerlessness.  The American Left will not be able to counter the lies of right-wing Islamophobia if it fails to recognize Islamist movements as the corruption of the powerless and fails to recognize the danger.

My Take on Islam Redux

My Take on Islam Redux

I recently came across the following statement on ISIS in an Op-Ed piece by a Muslim commentator in the New York Times:

While it’s wrong to claim that the group’s thinking represents mainstream Islam, as Islamophobes so often do, it’s also wrong to pretend that the Islamic State has “nothing to do with Islam,” as many Islamophobia­-wary Muslims like to say.[1]

This statement emboldens me to make clear my own take on Islamist terrorism.  Lately, I have been feeling that the attitude towards Islam in left-liberal circles is so politically charged, the false narrative that anyone who suggests that Islam may be different from Episcopalianism must be a right-wing Islamophobe being so dominant, that I had given up trying to talk about these ideas in such company.  I have never argued that Islam leads to terrorism.  That is Islamophobia, and I do not believe it.  Rather, I have argued that the current Muslim world is ill-equipped to counter the threat of Islamist fascism unless some radical changes occur. These changes can only be made by Muslims, and until they do so, the Islamist threat will be difficult to mitigate.  Again, I feel emboldened by the liberal Muslim voices that agree with me.

I have argued, as have many others, that there has not been and needs to be a Muslim Reformation, another highly charged statement in today’s political atmosphere leading to hyperbolic accusations of Islamophobia.  It does not mean that there are no Muslim liberals.  It does not mean that there are no Muslim believers whose personal expression of faith does not admit to Quranic literalism.  It does mean that there is little evidence of organized forces within the Islamic community that are fighting for these ideas as there have been in the Christian and Jewish communities.  The victory of those forces in Christianity and Judaism is so complete and far enough in the past that we tend to forget that these ideas were struggled for.  In the Muslim world, this struggle is nascent and inchoate but no less important for that.  The intrusion of a mature modernity into this nascent struggle complicates the matter.  Such Muslim voices tend to be lonely, isolated, largely ignored, and even vilified by Muslim and Arab intellectuals and activists who have other fish to fry.  It is the role of those intellectuals, abetted by the neo-Anarchist left, in isolating and marginalizing these voices that I find so troubling.

The Christian reformation began with Luther’s challenge to papal authority, and the Jewish reformation began with the Bal Shem Tov’s challenge to rabbinic authority, and culminated in the 19th century with the establishment of Reform Judaism.  These reformations led to the idea of secularism which is still missing in Islamic theology.  While, historically, there have been liberalizing movements within Islam, such as Sufism and the Murjia[2] movement, these are largely now considered heretical.  (I will know that a reformation has been successful in the Muslim world when apostasy, heresy, and blasphemy are erased from the penal codes in Muslim-majority nations.)  There is little organized presence within Islam struggling to free Islam from the tyranny of Quranic literalism, and until there is one, Muslim piety will not be a countervailing force to Islamist fascism, nor will Islam be comfortable with liberal ideals.

Asma Uddin, a Muslim human rights lawyer, has pointed out:

Even among individual Muslims, the vast majority of whom are freedom-loving, there are several ingrained misconceptions about human rights. Religious freedom is conflated with anarchy, particularly of the sexual sort -- the misconception being that religious freedom is ultimately about freedom from religion, which for many Muslims is freedom from moral constraints and thus total freedom to succumb to hedonism.[3]

Ms. Uddin is pointing out that within Islam, the general view is that God remains the guarantor of the moral universe and that without the constraints of religion, moral chaos would ensue.  Such an idea was also, formerly, the prevalent idea in Christian communities.  The forces countering this idea were a later consequence of religious reformation.  The 18th century Deists saw God as the guarantor of natural laws and divorced God from the moral universe, to the consternation of many.  Later still, the Transcendentalists found the moral force in nature itself.  As a result of these struggles, we can now conceive of a morally based atheism.  While it is transparently true that there are many Muslims who are perfectly comfortable with liberal ideals, it is also true that a sense of religion in which God remains the guarantor of the moral universe will not be, the predominant sensibility in unreformed religion.  (The argument, made any number of times, that liberal values, such as freedom of conscience, are irrelevant to Muslims because such values are “Eurocentric,” I find insultingly patronizing, and, frankly, racist.)

Arab and Muslim intellectuals, as suggested earlier by Mustafa Aykol, are too preoccupied with countering right-wing Islamophobia to pay much attention to what is happening in their own communities.  While that Islamophobia is nasty stuff, an exclusive focus on that will not allow those intellectuals and activists to lead their community to a useful place or encourage the kind of introspection that is needed.  How many times have we heard Muslims in the West tell us that true Quranic values support the freedom of women?  I have no reason to question their sincerity on this matter.  But if it is true that Muslim values support the freedom of women, why then do we see the almost universal subjugation of women throughout the Muslim world?  I would argue that it is not us non-Muslim Westerners who need to hear this message.  Rather, those who believe that about Quranic values need to take that message back to the Muslim world where the struggle over Quranic values needs to take place. 

In their exclusive focus on the West, Muslim activists and intellectuals are taking their cue from the American neo-Anarchist left.  According to that narrative, the power of the state is essentially evil, while virtue inheres in those who oppose state power or who are victimized by state power.  And so Muslim activists and intellectuals gravitate to those issues which characterize Muslims as the victims of power, primarily Islamophobia and head-scarf bans, in order to assert the moral superiority of Muslims as victims.  I am not arguing that these are inconsequential issues. I agree that head-scarf bans are counter-productive. However, the exclusive focus on these issues reinforces a dominant, if deleterious, left-wing narrative, at the expense of more cogent left-wing narratives, and legitimizes the rhetoric of moral superiority so prevalent among Muslim intellectuals and activists.

This indulgence in the rhetoric of moral superiority likewise causes Muslim activists and their friends in the neo-Anarchist left to discount any issue which challenges the narrative of Muslim as victim.  What other reason would lead those who claim to care about the condition of their fellow Muslims to ignore the festering sore that is the oppression of Muslim women?  George Packer, writing in the New Yorker, has also lamented the American Left’s relegating the oppression of Muslim women to a “third order issue.”[4]  Recognizing Muslims as oppressors of women might interfere with the belief in the inherent moral superiority of Muslims as victims of imperialism.  They neglect this issue to their shame.  Muslim activists in the United States will wear the hijab as a sign of their Muslim identity and defend their decision to do so claiming freedom of choice, and they excoriate Western countries with head-scarf bans for denying freedom of choice to Muslim women.  But where is their defense of freedom of choice for Muslim women in Muslim-majority countries who have no such choice?  Are they willing to put themselves on the line for freedom of choice in Saudi Arabia?  In Iran?  This lack of concern for the majority of Muslim women renders their protest disingenuous. 

This dismissal of the plight of Muslim women is doubly dangerous because it removes a strong weapon that could be used to fight the scourge of Islamist fascism.  Although groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda profess hatred for the West, there is a group they hate even more, women.  ISIS goes so far as to sacralize rape.  The fear and loathing of female sexuality is common in unreformed religion in general and is highly pronounced in Islamism.  A vigorous support for the freedom of Muslim women would undercut the tacit acceptance and support for Islamist radicalism, particularly in those countries professing Wahhabi Islam, where such support is a serious problem.  It would also be a powerful tool for stimulating religious reformation in that world.  But Muslim intellectuals and activists have denied themselves this powerful force by signing on to the rhetoric of moral superiority which discounts the subjugation of women in Islamic countries.

While it is wrong to say that Islam spawns terrorism, we cannot make the same claim for the rhetoric of moral superiority, since moral superiority justifies the rage which culminates in Jihadist fascism.  In the morally superior imagination, the Muslim is always the victim and the West is always the victimizer.  If that is so, then rage is a legitimate response to victimization.  I am not arguing that those activists’ indulgence in the rhetoric of moral superiority has caused terrorism; I am arguing that Muslim intellectuals and activists have defanged themselves in the fight against terrorism.  What have they to say to the young people who feel attracted to the arguments ISIS makes to them which stoke that rage and insist on the moral superiority of Islam itself?  Once you legitimize rage, it does not stop at moderation.  That is why I have called the rhetoric of moral superiority, in Julien Benda’s phrase, la trahison de clercs, Arab style, the treason of the intellectuals against their own community.

While the Christian and Jewish reformations took place hundreds of years ago, it is not unprecedented to have such reformations in the modern era.  Gandhi can be seen as having fomented a reformation in Hinduism, the exile of the Dalai Lama serving the same phenomenon in Buddhism.  Both arose as a response to imperialism, British and Chinese, respectively.  Gandhi understood that imperialism grafts itself onto native autocracies to justify its own, and so he sought to end the autocracy of the caste system in Hinduism so India could free itself from imperialist domination.  The patriarchal subjugation of women and the tyranny of Quranic literalism played a similar role in the Muslim experience of imperialism.  Gandhi wisely rejected rage and moral superiority as legitimate responses to imperialist victimization.  Current Muslim intellectuals and activists have much to learn from Gandhi.

Recently, there was a horrifying incident in Kabul in which a woman was beaten to death and her body burned by a howling mob outside a mosque because she was falsely accused of burning a Quran.  Why has there been no vocal and public outcry from organized Muslim groups against what can only be described as a horrific sexual lynching, as are the myriad honor killings taking place in the Muslim world?  As blacks were lynched in the Jim Crow South to reinforce a racial caste system, this woman was lynched in Kabul to reinforce a sexual caste system. 

Why has there been no vocal and public outcry from organized Muslim groups against the idolatry inherent in Quranic literalism in which a mere object made of paper is considered more sacred than human life because of the words men have printed in it?  The members of that mob were not Islamist terrorists.   They were Muslims who were not able to question the oppression of women or the tyranny of Quranic literalism.  Those missing voices would be the voices of religious reformation which Muslim intellectuals and activists have eschewed.

Islamophobes believe that Islam itself is the cause of terrorism and see the solution to terrorism as isolating Islam and carpet-bombing ISIS.  Aykol’s “islamophobia-wary Muslims” deny any connection between Islam and ISIS.  Ironically, they share with Islamophobes the idea that there are no solutions to Islamist terror to be had within Islam itself.  I am more hopeful than either of these groups.  Islamist fascism can be defeated through a religious reformation that undercuts the underpinnings of Islamism by attacking the oppression of women and the tyranny of Quranic literalism.  I am less sanguine that the Muslim intellectuals and activists needed to mount that reformation can be divorced from the debilitating and destructive rhetoric of moral superiority encouraged by neo-Anarchist ideology.


[1]Mustafa Aykol, “A Medieval Antidote to ISIS.” New York Times, 26 December 2016.

[2] (from the article cited above) The scholars who put this forward became known as “murjia,” the upholders of irja, or, simply, “postponers.” The theology that they outlined could have been the basis for a tolerant, non-coercive, pluralistic Islam — an Islamic liberalism. Unfortunately, they did not have enough influence on the Muslim world. The school of thought disappeared quickly, only to go down in Sunni orthodoxy’s memory as one of the early “heretical sects.”

[3] Asma Uddin, “Islam and Human Rights: Why It's Up to the Muslim Community to Prove Itself.”


[4] George Packer, “Tariq Ramadan Comes to America!” New Yorker, 6 April 2010. Available on-line at Accessed 20 July,2010.


The Burqa, Islam, and Liberal Ideals; A Response to Martha Nussbaum

The following essay is a response to an article by the University of Chicago philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, that appeared in the New York Times.  Her article is accessible in the first footnote.


The Burqa, Islam, and Liberal Ideals;

A Response to Martha Nussbaum[1]

by Charles Berezin

I agree with Nussbaum that burqa bans are misguided and, perhaps, too closely associated with anti-immigrant bias.  I find her argument ingenious but flat.  She misses the point just as burqa bans miss the point.  Her argument is a full-throated defense of the liberal value of cultural relativism, calling John Locke and Roger Williams for the defense, but she fails to consider the unique ways that Islam challenges that ideal.  Anti-burqa laws are misguided, not only because they violate a liberal ideal, the freedom of conscience, which Nussbaum holds sacrosanct, but also because they fail at another, perhaps more important, liberal ideal, the emancipation of women, about which Nussbaum is strangely dismissive.

The issues that Nussbaum skirts and which her 17th century interlocutors fail to address are the abuse of women and to what degree does the protection of women’s rights impinge on liberty of conscience as regards religious minorities.  In her argument, she knocks over some straw men that are more substantive than she supposes.

She applauds the Turkish ban of the veil promulgated by Atatürk[2] as a way of protecting women at that time who chose to go unveiled and claims that this is not needed in modern Europe where ” women can dress more or less as they please”(NYT).  There is more in that “more or less” than an offhand remark.  Can all women in the Muslim banlieues of Paris really dress as they please?  If some cannot, what kind of protection do they have?  As a legal philosopher, Nussbaum would like to believe that the law is sufficient.  But the protection of the law may not be enough.  If liberal states are obliged by their liberal ideals to protect the freedom of conscience in a minority religious community, is that community obliged to observe the liberal ideals of the host country as regards the freedom of women?  It is naïve to assert, as Nussbaum does, that wearing the burqa is merely a matter of individual choice.

Nussbaum approves of the Turkish ban of the veil because it did, in fact, protect women in that historical context.  Then, she accepts the premise that protecting women trumped freedom of conscience as an obligation of the state.  Now, however, she focuses instead on defending the veil to protect freedom of conscience when protecting Muslim women is still the urgent issue.  Current burqa bans are misguided precisely because they do not afford that protection.

Nussbaum counters the coercion case, I think, rather weakly:

A fourth argument holds that women wear the burqa only because they are coerced.  This is a rather implausible argument to make across the board, and it is typically made by people who have no idea what the circumstances of this or that individual woman are (NYT).

It is not necessary to stipulate that all who wear the burqa do so out of coercion to find the burqa objectionable.  Allowing only subjective criteria makes for a weak argument.  Nussbaum has perhaps too stringent a test for what is abusive.  Is the woman who wears the burqa out of a sincere belief that women’s bodies are shameful and must be covered, as the Koran tells her, less abused than the woman who is forced to cover up by her father or husband?  Is genital mutilation less abusive because the girl in question consents to have her clitoris cut off?  Where do you draw the line?  Why is genital mutilation on one side and the burqa on the other?  Is physical violence the only criterion? 

Nussbaum is at her weakest on the question of abuse: “Indeed, given the strong association between domestic violence and the abuse of alcohol, it seems at least plausible that observant Muslim families will turn out to have less of it” (NYT).  This is utter nonsense.  Given what we have learned about the prevalence of sexual abuse among traditional religious societies, it takes a kind of willful ignorance to make this statement.  Nussbaum ignores the fear and loathing of female sexuality among these groups, to which Muslims are no exception.

Nussbaum wants to rely on a woman’s subjective interpretation of the burqa as the deciding factor, since, in her view, the individual conscience is sacrosanct.  But, as in the example I just outlined, how does this liberal ideal apply to the woman who has internalized the coercive social relations which are the context of the burqa?  What are the obligations of a liberal society towards, what I would call, the subjugated imagination: the tendency to internalize the contradictions that lead to one’s own victimization?  Post-Modernists like to see any imposition of any idea as inherently imperialist, and so would see burqa bans as a form of cultural imperialism.  In this case, we cannot avoid that imposition, we cannot disapprove of burqa bans for this reason without supporting a set of coercive social relations that either resulted from or contributed to the success of imperialist domination.  Imperialists have always used native autocracies to reinforce their own.  Nussbaum wants to deny that the burqa is a “symbol of male domination” (NYT).  She cannot do so without likewise denying that the burqa is a reification of coercive social relations and that the woman wearing one suffers extreme alienation.  The fact of choice does not lessen the alienation.

Here, Nussbaum misses the unique challenge of Islam to liberal ideals.  Her defense of the burqa is an example of mirror-imaging, assuming that the Muslim community is the mirror image of her own and shares her values.  It is not and does not.  The Muslim woman who wears the burqa or the veil out of a religious duty to cover up her shameful body is not making a choice in any sense that the women in Nussbaum’s gym’s locker room are making choices.  Her insistence that it is such a choice is itself, perhaps, an example of cultural imperialism.  Nussbaum’s comparing a Muslim woman’s wearing the burqa to another woman’s decision to have breast implants is like comparing apples to suicide vests. 

Tariq Ramadan, often touted as the moderate face of Islam, defends the hijab as an instance of modesty that is required of men and women alike.  Ramadan is either being disingenuous or he fails to understand modesty.  Modesty is about how one presents oneself in public; it is not invested in any particular article of clothing.  Certainly, a woman can show modesty without covering her hair.  But Ramadan is silent on whether this is possible.  The ritual covering up of women, whether it be the burqa, the niqab, the chador, or the hijab, is the religious encoding of the patriarchal control of women’s bodies.  The hijab may be the least restrictive version of that religious code, but it is an instance of it nonetheless. 

There are three classes of women who submit to this religious code.  One group has firmly internalized the patriarchal control of women’s bodies and does not question the religious edict.  Liberal values oblige us to offer such women pathways to rejecting the coercive social relations which they do not yet understand as coercive.  While we can entice them onto such pathways, we cannot coerce them, as burqa bans, with some irony, purport to do.  Why should they reject one type of coercion for another?  These women will find the unavoidable contact with modernity attractive or repellent.  Burqa bans present modernity with a repellent face.

Another group has emerged onto that pathway, and its members are at varying distances along it.  They are either considering removing the veil or are being coerced to wear some version of it.  They are confronting the coercive social relations that are the context of the veil and need help.  Their struggle defines them as among the most important people in the world.  If there is a moderate face of Islam, it needs to be turned towards these women, not only in the liberal West, but in majority Muslim communities. Burqa bans do not address the profound forces that these women are struggling with, nor does Nussbaum.  She offers them only the consolation of the law and, instead, expends her liberal fire in defending the very thing they are struggling to reject. 

The Westernized, educated Muslim woman who chooses to wear the hijab willingly participates in the ritual denigration of women and validates female alienation.  As a member of liberal society, I feel obliged to tolerate that choice out of good manners, but I do not respect it.  Nor am I obligated by liberal values to respect it.  On the contrary, it is exactly my liberal values that oblige me not to respect that choice.  I oppose burqa bans because I would prefer not to see intolerance of that particular choice as part of the legal code.

One could argue that fundamentalist Christianity and Orthodox Judaism enforce similarly coercive relations upon women.  But there is a difference.  Both Christianity and Judaism have gone through reformations.  Indeed, the liberal values that Nussbaum so prizes are the direct result of those reformations.  The boys in the ball park wearing the tzitzim tolerate Nussbaum’s decision as a Jewish woman to go uncovered.  They may consider her anathema, but they do not interfere.  They go double-hatted, so they can keep their heads covered according to religious edict and still doff their caps during the national anthem, to avoid violating either secular patriotic or orthodox religious norms.  They have made peace with the secular world.

Islam has gone through no such reformation.  Christian and Jewish women have the option of rejecting coercive social relations and remaining within the larger Christian or Jewish communities.  Those larger communities regularly extend help to such women.  Muslim women have no such opportunities.  They cannot reject coercive social relations without rejecting the Muslim community itself.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a case in point.  In this context, it could be difficult for Muslim women even to understand their social relations as coercive because there exist no Muslim models for rejecting them, as Christian and Jewish models abound.

Islam is unique among the world’s great religions in having persisted into the modern world without having gone through a reformation and so remains unable to accommodate liberal values.  Islamic theology, as many have pointed out, lacks a concept of the secular.  It is not anti-Muslim to look forward to a reformation in the Muslim world.  In fact, contributing to and even fomenting such a reformation is the best self-defense liberal societies can make since such a reformation would remove the supports for the jihadist fascism that threatens them.  The greatest leverage point we have for fomenting such a reformation is a vigorous worldwide support of the liberal value of women’s emancipation.  Nothing else so sharpens the contradictions of unreformed religion.  That support should be the primary objective of liberal foreign policy as well as the best way of integrating immigrant communities.

Muslim immigrants to the United States tend to be those who leave their home countries because they feel a lack of the civil society protections this country affords.  Communal coercion is less of an issue for this group.  The situation is different, however, in Europe, where Muslim immigrants tend to be economic migrants who bring with them no experience of or yearning for civil society.  They live in enclaves where civil society protections do not sufficiently obtrude.  There are bound to be clashes at the meeting ground between that community and the host community that takes civil society for granted.  Burqa bans are misguided efforts to control that meeting ground.  A more productive way to control that meeting ground would be to encourage that community to grow civil society institutions.  Women attempting to throw off restrictive communal pressures are the vanguard in that effort and deserve enthusiastic support.  Instead, Western liberals, like Nussbaum, have abandoned them.

What I find missing from Nussbaum’s piece is some realization that the burqa is objectionable on many grounds, not the least of which is that it is a violation of liberal ideals, but that banning it or banning the veil is counterproductive.  Women and girls in immigrant Muslim communities need to know that they have options, how to exercise those options, and that they will be protected by the liberal state if they do so.  Rather than burqa bans, there need to be shelters and counseling for women and girls who fear coercion of any sort.  Where there is no community support for rejecting coercive social relations, the liberal state has an obligation to provide it.  The legal system is not sufficient.

There are educated Muslim women in the West who do choose to wear the hijab, ostensibly as an expression of Muslim piety.  In this case, these women clearly are making a choice, but the context of that choice is their demand that the liberal society surrounding them respect their choice.  In some instances, the hijab is worn specifically to provoke liberal values, allowing the wearer to castigate Western liberals for their hypocrisy and assert her own moral superiority as a victim.  In a recent example, there is the case of the Muslim woman who had been working at Disneyland for a few years in a job that required her to wear a costume and who had never previously worn a hijab.  She came to work one day wearing a hijab and refused to remove it for the costume.  Disney offered her another job at no loss of pay or grade that would not require a costume so that there would be no conflict with her wearing a hijab.  But the woman refused and sued the Disney Corporation for discrimination. 

The test case for such Westernized Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab and expect their freedom of choice to be respected is whether they support a similar freedom of choice for their sisters in Saudi Arabia, Iran, or in any number of Muslim countries where women have no such choice.  But on this, Westernized Muslim women are strangely silent.  All their energies seemed focused on castigating the West.  In this, they are supported by American liberals such as Martha Nussbaum, who lecture us on exactly which liberal ideals we are supposed to invoke in support of Muslim women but who ignore others perhaps more pertinent. 

In a similar vein, here is George Packer, writing in the New Yorker about his consternation with his fellow panelists at a Cooper Union event during Tariq Ramadan’s first visit to the US:

So by the time my turn came, the general picture was surprisingly, reassuringly bright: reconciling Islamic faith with liberal values is easy; the views of Muslims are basically the same as everyone else’s; the oppression of Muslim women is a third-order issue. It struck me that, in an event sponsored by groups whose whole purpose is a commitment to freedom of thought and expression (PEN, the A.C.L.U., and others), no one had said a word about the many threats to it in countries where Muslims constitute the majority, or where some Muslims who are in the minority refuse to accept it. And yet every day the news brings us such stories, so that they’ve become numbingly familiar.[3]

Packer identifies the context for Nussbaum’s arguments as well as the downside to accepting that context: the abandonment of liberal values.  American liberals have constructed a narrative to justify that abandonment.  There is a tendency on the American Left to see Muslims as victims and afford them the moral superiority of victim status.  Certainly the hub-bub surrounding Tariq Ramadan’s first visit, overcoming the objections of the State Department, fits that narrative.  Nussbaum’s defense of the burqa helps enable this tendency, claiming Muslim women as the principal aggrieved party in an unjust action by the state.  In this narrative, they oversimplify the legacy of Imperialism which corrupted both sides of the equation, the powerful and the powerless alike.  So they discount, for instance, the denial of freedom of expression inherent in the assassination of Theo Van Gogh and the death threats against Ayaan Hirsi Ali, obliquely referred to by Packer, because that denial of free expression did not come from a state actor.  It doesn’t fit the preferred narrative of Muslim as victim of state power, nor does the Muslim oppression of women. 

When Ayaan Hirsi Ali came to the United States looking for an intellectual home, she first went to the liberal Brookings Institution.  They sent her packing, afraid that her radical support of Muslim women might offend Arabs, and into the waiting arms of the right-wing, neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute.  The Left’s ceding the moral high ground on the oppression of Muslim women to the Right is a self-inflicted wound if ever there was one. 

For their part, Muslim and Arab intellectuals have been quick to seize the mantle of victimhood, moral superiority becoming a rhetorical disease among this group.  They deny any moral equivalence with the West and recoil from introspection and self-criticism.  Any pointing out of problems in the Muslim world is attacked as baseless and hypocritical because of similar problems in the West.  Some on the American Left have abetted this childishness.  The cost to rational discourse has been great.  This addiction to moral superiority has been tremendously destructive, since moral superiority and the rage it engenders is the wellspring of jihadist terrorism.  It is la trahison des clercs, Arab style.

There is also a tendency to see Islamists, in particular, as allies in a grand, international, anti-Capitalist coalition.  Here is Slavoj Zizek, writing about Islamism, and the Taliban in particular, in The Guardian:

Even in the case of clearly fundamentalist movements, one should be careful not to miss the social component. The Taliban is regularly presented as a fundamentalist Islamist group enforcing its rule with terror. However, when, in the spring of 2009, they took over the Swat valley in Pakistan, The New York Times reported that they engineered "a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants".[4]


Really?  Is the Taliban merely “presented” as “[ruling] with terror?”  Is that presentation, which Zizek questions, really in opposition to their social activism, which Zizek applauds?  What has been glossed over here to see the Taliban as anti-Capitalist allies?  Certainly the Taliban’s terrorism against women is invisible in Zizek’s account.

Here, the Left needs to be more careful about whom it chooses as friends.  Fascism always starts out, at least, as an anti-Capitalist social movement, and sees liberals as useful idiots who defend them in the name of freedom of conscience, a value for which neither they nor the Islamists have any use.  Some Left intellectuals have been too quick to forget the fascist leanings of Islamism’s progenitors.  But the greatest cost of that connection has been a wholesale abandonment of important liberal values.  It seems to require, in George Packer’s words, seeing “the oppression of Muslim women [as] a third-order issue,” the issue that could stimulate a Reformation in the Muslim world that could make them true allies.

          Nussbaum’s piece may be an admirable amicus brief in a court test of a burqa ban, but it fails to appreciate the contradiction in liberal values that the confrontation with Islam presents. I find Nussbaum’s defense of the burqa to be a legalistic, self-defeating application of liberal values since it is ultimately a defense of coercive social relations, just as the attack on the burqa is a self-defeating, illiberal, xenophobic reaction.  The context of her defense is a narrative in which American liberals abandon some cherished principles.  It abets the childish, self-defeating moral superiority which is the distinguishing characteristic of even moderate Arab and Muslim rhetoric, dangerous since the illusion of moral superiority promotes the rage that stokes Islamist fascism.






[1] Martha Nussbaum, “Veiled Threats?” New York Times, 11 July, 2010.  Available at 11, July, 2010.


[2] I am accepting Nussbaum’s assertion for the sake of argument.  Atatürk never actually banned the veil, although he did ban the fez.  Instead, he encouraged women to adopt Western dress.

[3] George Packer, “Tariq Ramadan Comes to America!” New Yorker, 6 April 2010. Available on-line at Accessed 20 July,2010.

[4]  Accessed 2/16/2011.

Israel-Bashing and the Neo-Anarchist Imagination

I wrote this piece shortly after the conclusion of the 2014 Gaza War.



by Charles Berezin

Let us establish that there is a difference between Israel-bashing and criticizing Israel.  I am a critic of Israel.  I think the Netanyahu government and its policies have been a disaster for Israel.  The occupation is a moral outrage.  The settlement program, besides being cruel and illegal is a violation of the original values of Zionism; all the settlements should be dismantled as a precursor to good faith negotiations.  The outsize influence of AIPAC and its uncritical support for Israel as well as the uncritical support of similar groups has had a deleterious effect on American politics and poses a serious moral challenge for American Judaism.  I am against these things because they are not good for Israel, and I want what’s good for Israel.  I want Israel to do better.

If Israel’s behavior in Gaza is criminal, it should be adjudicated as such, although the UN, at this point, can hardly be considered impartial. Hamas’ undeniable criminality is a separate issue, but should be adjudicated as well.  It is the foolishness of the rhetoric of moral superiority to claim that one side’s criminality justifies the other’s.  To claim the responsibility of one side in the mutual stupidity of provocation and response fueled by political cowardice is to trivialize the scope of the human tragedy in Gaza and exploits that tragedy for a political agenda.  The people of Gaza are the victims of political cowardice on both sides.

But the Israel bashers do not want what’s good for Israel.  They do not want Israel to do better; they want the Jewish state not to exist.  Is this anti-Semitism?  Possibly.  In some cases – yes.  At least, the Israel bashers must explain why, among all the peoples of the world, only the Jews have no right to their own state.  I am as ambivalent about the concept of the nation-state as anyone on the Left.  As a child, I asked the elders at my synagogue why is it that the people who have suffered the most from extreme nationalism are now among the greatest supporters of nationalism.  I was told not to ask such questions.  I still think the question is appropriate, but if nation-states are, unfortunately, still the norm, why shouldn’t the Jews have the right to one?

August Bebel, the German Marxist, pointed out, rather trenchantly, that anti-Semitism is the Socialism of the fools.  We can add, in the current context, that Israel-bashing is the Anarchism of the idiots.  Let me explain.  In a nutshell, the dispute between Socialists and Anarchists that broke up the First International in 1872 centered on the role of the state vs class as the focus of political activity. The Socialists argued that class was the issue and that the state was merely the servant of bourgeois class hegemony.  They advocated organizing to seize state power in the name of the proletariat.  The Anarchists argued that the power of the state was the issue and that there could be no class victory until the state was eliminated.  Socialist practice favored organization and education, while Anarchist practice favored activism and spontaneity, opposing any manifestation of state power.

These divisions on the Left have persisted.  We can clearly see the influence of Anarchism on the American New Left of the sixties whose only practice was confronting state power through spontaneous activism and was deliberately anti-ideological and anti-intellectual as a rejection of the Socialist “old left.”[1]  If your principal tactic is confronting state power, then state violence is the eventual outcome.  After its moment of ironic success, when it finally achieved that outcome at Kent State and Jackson State, the New Left had nowhere else to go, so it fizzled off into the absurd and tragic political theatre of violent confrontation in the Weather Underground and the SLA. 

For the most part, the current American Left is the zombie remnant of that neo-Anarchist movement.  Anarchists tend to consider themselves more ethical than Socialists since, in their eyes, opposing power confers moral superiority.  The current crop of neo-Anarchists have elevated this moral component into a fetish.  As Noam Chomsky, the eminence grise of neo-Anarchism and Israel- basher extraordinaire, puts it: “Violence, deceit, and lawlessness are the natural functions of the state, any state.”[2] He excoriates liberal critics for serving state evil by bamboozling people into believing that with a little effort, the state could be otherwise.  This evil, he tells us, is “the systematic expression of the way our institutions function and will continue to function unless impeded by an aroused public”2  Chomsky neatly encapsulates for us the two major tenets of neo-Anarchism: the state is evil; political activity consists of opposing evil through spontaneous activism to impede state power.  In the neo-Anarchist narrative, then, states are the primary holders of power and guarantee the legitimacy of power-wielding institutions.  Evil, therefore, flows to the pole of state power; virtue flows to the pole of those opposing state power. So anyone opposing state power is deemed automatically virtuous.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is where this good vs evil morality play plays itself out in its most intense form since the Israelis have a powerful state and the Palestinians have none.

No information gets through which does not fit the neo-Anarchist narrative, and so all conflicts get reduced to a morality tale of victims vs victimizers.  As a result, Israel-bashers tend to sentimentalize the Palestinian struggle in these terms and confer moral superiority on the Palestinians.  Thus we have the complaint of the Israeli leftist who says that when he visits fellow leftists in the US, he is seen as “an occupier whose every attempt to dialogue is normalizing the occupation and diminishing the Palestinian struggle.”[3]

One’s condition may be pitiable, even extremely so, as in the case of the Palestinians, but condition does not confer virtue.  Virtue attaches to actions and behavior, not to condition.  But in the neo-Anarchist imagination, moral superiority is conferred by condition alone, the status of victim, and by extension to the actions of those victims, and by extension again to the supporters of those victims.  So in the end, the sentimentalizing of the Palestinian struggle, the determination to see them as pure victims and the Israelis as pure victimizers, is driven by self-righteousness, the desire to see oneself as virtuous.  This overweening concern for the politics of personal purity marks neo-Anarchism as a petit-bourgeois, not a proletarian, movement.

Key to the neo-Anarchist narrative on Palestine is the idea that Israel evicted the Palestinians in 1948 and caused the Palestinian refugee crisis.  The truth is, of course, a little more complicated, and Israeli historians have never been shy about pointing out that atrocities were perpetrated by both sides in the lamentable events of 1948.  But the myth of the victims’ moral superiority feeds the Israel-bashers’ insistence on a one-state solution featuring the right of return.  The basis of that myth is the neo-Anarchist belief in the moral superiority of the victims of state oppression, so they imagine that that dispossession was carried out solely by the Israeli state and can only be redressed by the nullification of the Israeli state. 

But there are other problems with the right of return that the neo-Anarchist imagination cannot admit to.  It is correct to say that during the events surrounding the independence of Israel, 850,000 people were subjected to state persecution, eviction, and confiscation of their property.  We are not talking about the Palestinians, however, but the Jewish citizens of the Arab states that declared war on Israel.  Fortunately, these refugees found a country willing to take them in and make them citizens; the Palestinians who fled were not so fortunate.  Somehow, the moral turpitude of that event has disappeared in the neo-Anarchist imagination because those refugees can no longer be sentimentalized as victims.  But the right of redress, if it is a right, pertains to them no less because of that.

Let us also remember that around the same time as Israel was created, another country was created by partition for the exclusive use of a religious community, Pakistan.  Greater violence attended the creation of Pakistan than the creation of Israel.  Millions of Hindus were evicted from Pakistan, and millions of Muslims fled India.  But with this difference.  India had no policy of evicting its Muslim citizens and confiscating their property while Pakistan had exactly that policy regarding its non-Muslim residents.  Simple justice would require the Israel- bashers to support the right of the Hindu victims of Pakistani state oppression to return to their homes in Pakistan and reclaim their property as they support the right of Palestinians to do so in Israel.  If the right of return is to be considered a principle, then they must at least admit that it applies equally to Pakistan as to Israel, equally to the Jewish dispossessed as to the Palestinian.  Denying this equality raises the suspicion of a racist double standard.

Much of Israel-bashing, then, is determined by the neo-Anarchist narrative and supported by the rhetoric of moral superiority that accompanies that narrative, in which the victim of state power is conferred automatic virtue and innocence.  It was interesting, recently, to hear Palestinian voices expressing solidarity with the protestors in Ferguson, Missouri.  We are both, so they claim, victims of state violence.  Somehow, Hamas’ rockets targeting Israeli civilians seem to have disappeared from the equation.  But as we suggested earlier, the people of Gaza are the victims of political cowardice, not state oppression.  Their plight is no less pitiable for that, but the solutions and lessons are different and importantly so.  Neo-Anarchism will never find that difference.

While Israelis are hardly immune from feelings of moral superiority, the striking thing about the 2000 Camp David meeting was the Israeli willingness to forego that claim if it would lead to a settlement.  The Israelis have since retreated from that position, but it is still a possibility.  Arafat understood that he could not forego that claim, the moral superiority of victimhood being the basis of Palestinian national consciousness. 

For their part, Arab intellectuals have been quick to seize the mantle of victimhood, moral superiority becoming a rhetorical disease among this group.  They deny any moral equivalence with the West and recoil from introspection and self-criticism.  Any pointing out of problems in the Muslim world is attacked as baseless and hypocritical because of similar problems in the West.  The neo-Anarchist Left has abetted this childishness by cheerleading for Palestinian and Arab moral superiority.  The cost to rational discourse has been great, as has been the cost to legitimate concerns about the condition of women in the Arab world.  To their discredit, the Neo-Anarchist left has neglected this issue since seeing Arabs and Muslims as victimizers of women might diminish their inherent moral superiority as victims of imperialism.  This addiction to moral superiority has been tremendously destructive, since moral superiority and the rage it engenders is the wellspring of jihadist terrorism.  It is la trahison des clercs, Arab style.

          In a recent Op-Ed piece in the LA Times,[4] Ibrahim Sharqieh suggests that Palestinians feel more equal to the Israelis when at war than otherwise.  If the Palestinians want to feel equality with Israel, let them accept equal culpability for the plight of Palestine, equal culpability with the Israelis for the moral and political cowardice that troubles the region.  But equal culpability is not admissible in the neo-Anarchist narrative nor in the rhetoric of moral superiority.  You cannot negotiate from a position of moral superiority.  Until the Palestinians accept equal culpability, negotiations will always fail, and warfare will continue.

          There is a corollary to Lord Acton’s famous dictum, “Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  There is another force equally as corrupting as power, and that is powerlessness.  The neo-Anarchist imagination cannot entertain the possibility that the Palestinian struggle has not withstood these forces and has been suffused with the corruption of the powerless.







[1] I would make a distinction between New Left groups like SDS and the Civil Rights Movement.  The Civil Rights Movement was led by people who understood organization and strategy.  The Freedom Riders were hardly a spontaneous demonstration against racism, despite the mythology surrounding Rosa Parks.  It was a tactic to sharpen the contradictions of Jim Crow in an attempt to educate those who were watching.  Before his death, Martin Luther King was looking to expand the movement to a consideration of economic justice which could have led to a Socialist revival had he continued.


[2], p.126



Response to Fawaz Gerges

I met Fawaz Gerges at a function for parents of Sarah Lawrence students in 2011.  He gave me a copy of his recently published book, Journey of the Jihadist and asked me to send him a critique.  I imagine he was surprised to receive the following letter.


Dear Fawaz,

I read and enjoyed your book on Muslim militancy.  I learned a lot from your portraits of jihadists that I suspected but could not confirm.  Although I have not read extensively in this area, I would compare your book with V.S. Naipaul’s Among the Believers, about his travels in the Muslim world in the 70’s to interview Muslim radicals.  Naipaul started his journey with an open mind, or so he said, and ended up finding his subjects detestable and hypocritical.  You started out with the universal detestation of these figures and, if not actually humanizing them, made the point that they needed to be understood on their own terms.  I think you succeeded in that, but I came away feeling more than ever that these people were true fascists and that the only differences between Kamal and Zawahiri were tactical. 


I feel the need to tell you a little about myself so that you understand where my comments are coming from.  Although I have not pursued an academic career, I have a Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago.  I wrote a dissertation on Ezra Pound in which I investigated the relationship among his poetics and his Fascism, anti-Semitism, and Social Credit economics.  A good deal of my dissertation was an analysis of the rhetoric of fascism and anti-Semitism, and I see profound resonances between that and the rhetoric of the jihadists and Islamists that you report.


While you often point out the differences between jihadists and more mainstream Muslims, there are currents which seem to run through the entirety of Muslim society, which end up providing at least moral and intellectual support for jihadism.  Your book documents these currents.  One of them is the pre-Enlightenment mindset of Arab society.  You report that at a symposium in Lebanon that you attended, no one could believe that Al Qaeda had been behind 9/11.  Instead, people came up with wild conspiracy theories implicating the Israelis and the US government.  Most Westerners, reading your account would ask how anyone, intellectuals, especially, could believe such fantasies.  But in the pre-Enlightenment mind-set, truth has little to do with evidence; instead, the truth is whatever supports what people need to believe about themselves.  These intellectuals need to believe that Muslims would not behave in this way, so anything that points to Al Qaeda’s guilt cannot be true.  In the same way, pre-Enlightenment Europeans needed to believe that humanity was God’s central concern, so Galileo’s heliocentric universe, which takes the Earth out of the center of the universe, had to be false.  Your book documents the Arab pre-Enlightenment mind-set on numerous occasions.

 Another current that your book documents is the unshakeable belief in Arab moral superiority, which, I believe, is particularly poisonous, since moral superiority is the wellspring of terrorism.  Your account of Qutb is interesting in this regard.  His reaction to America strikes me as more than naïve provincialism.  He seems desperate to claim the Arabs morally superior to Americans in the face of American material superiority and edits out much of the American experience in order to maintain that belief.  Moral superiority was his starting point, not his conclusion.  He manages to connect moral superiority with hatred of the Enlightenment. 

 In the morally superior imagination, the Arab is always the victim, and the West is always the victimizer.  One of the most disheartening things about the people whose voices you present is that they are full of answers and have no questions.  The world is as they say it is and cannot be otherwise.  Such people cannot learn, cannot change, and cannot accommodate.

 There are other traits of fascist movements which your book documents.  For the jihadist, the “ummah” becomes the mystical entity demanding ultimate sacrifice that corresponds to the “volk” in the Nazi imagination. 

 What I noticed, studying anti-Semitic rhetoric, was that in the fascist imagination, the Jew became a screen upon which the fascist projected his own bad dreams, accusing the Jews of conspiring to the world domination which was their own deepest desire.  While the jihadists indulge in anti-Semitism as a convenience, America seems to play the greater role as the hated other.  When you report  Kamal’s belief in an American hostility to Muslims based on religion and ideology, it is his own religious and ideological hatreds he is projecting onto America.  It is hard to believe that his softening, as you report, is anything but a hudnah, a ceasefire in the war of the ummah against the West,

 Your history of the Islamist movement in Egypt has correspondences with Nazi history.  The Nazis went through a putschist phase which did not work and which landed their leaders in jail.  When the Nazis and some other fascist movements did achieve state power, it was often through using the institutions of the liberal state, which they promptly abolished.  The difference for the Islamists is that there are no liberal state institutions in the Arab world for them to exploit.  So when their putsches failed, they had no strategic alternative, and their movement fragmented.  Interestingly, the closest thing to a liberal state in the Arab world is perhaps the Palestinian Authority, which has now been taken over by a fascist movement. 

 An ironic corollary of this situation is that where there is no liberal state, there is no civil society, so the only people sufficiently organized to oppose the authoritarian leaders seem to be the Islamists.

 While it may be true, as you point out, that “Muslim piety does not inculcate intolerance, nor incubate radicals and terrorists,” but moral superiority does exactly those things.  And moral superiority, which justifies the rage that culminates in jihadism, is pervasive in everyone you mention and quote.  It is especially disheartening to find it in Arab intellectuals who should know better.  I consider the rhetoric of moral superiority in which they indulge to be la trahison des clercs Arab style.

 It is common among liberal intellectuals to say that all the great religions have common values, and that there are no real differences between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam when it comes down to basic values.  I find that hard to believe anymore.  Christianity and Judaism are similar in this regard because they have both gone through Reformations.  Until Islam goes through something similar, Islamic values and Muslim piety are not going to lead to tolerance or be an effective counterbalance to jihadist fascism.

 As much as Islamists and jihadists hate America and have turned America into their bogeyman, there is something that they hate even more: women.  I was particularly struck by your documenting Qutb’s fear and loathing of female sexuality.  If the West has any leverage for change in the Muslim world, it is not through changes in policy, as necessary as those might be; it is through the education and empowerment of Muslim women.  The emancipation of women could ignite a Reformation in the Muslim world that will remove the supports for jihadist fascism.


Although I consider myself a creature of the Left, I am dismayed by what I see as a dominant tendency in the American left that I call “infantile leftism.”  Infantile leftism sees American power as the main problem in the world, so that all evil flows to the pole of American power, and all virtue flows to whomever opposes American power.  Political activity consists solely in confronting power and supporting anyone else who does.  When you report that some Western intellectuals feel that America reaped what it sowed on 9/11, you are hearing the voices of infantile leftism.  American policy can be as bad as we might think, but to say that America somehow deserved 9/11 is horrific.

 There is a corollary to Lord Acton’s famous phrase.  There is another force that is equally as corrupting as power, and that is powerlessness.  I see your book as documenting jihadism as the corruption of the powerless.  Unfortunately, the Bush administration and the American left turn into two sides of the same debased currency, as neither is able to deal effectively with the danger of jihadist fascism.


 Chuck Berezin

Egypt 8/13; Tahrir Square Round Two

This essay addresses the resurgence of unrest in Tahrir Square that toppled Mohamed Morsi and gave Egypt the Sisi military putsch.


A recent Op-Ed piece on Egypt in the New York Times begins:  “How do you reconcile with people who are prepared to kill you, and how do you stop them from killing again?”  Reading this, I had to ask myself which side this writer is supporting.  This kind of murkiness is inherent in the Egyptian calamity, and most traditional labels we might apply to it, democracy, autocracy, military coup, etc., produce only falsification. 

The American press has been mostly promulgating the military coup vs democracy meme, with Obama denouncing the generals and calling for a swift return to democracy, but you cannot return to something which never existed.  Americans are fond of confusing democracy with elections and so cannot detect the falsification.  If the Muslim Brotherhood was elected, then the Muslim Brotherhood constitutes the legitimate government.  No?

The crux of the matter is the Muslim Brotherhood itself.  Let us be under no illusions as to who these people are.  Their goal is to implement a regime in which a woman accused of adultery gets stoned to death, the fear and loathing of female sexuality being the basis of their fascistic agenda.   A regime like that has been their goal ever since their founders sat out World War II in Berlin as the guests of Adolf Hitler. 

For the Muslim Brotherhood, democracy is a tactic, not a goal.  If they can get into a position to implement their agenda through elections, well, so much the better.  If appearing as moderates on some Islamist continuum gives them a temporary advantage, they’ll do that too.  On the whole, they prefer opportunism to violence, even though they have used violence and assassination more often, but their agenda remains sacrosanct and inviolate.  Mohammed Morsi tested the bounds of democratic opportunism and overstepped those bounds by behaving like a North Carolina Republican.

Another peculiarity of the American sensibility is the fetishization of non-violence, seeing the perpetrators of violence as necessarily evil and the victims of violence as automatically pure and innocent.  But violence, by itself, does not delegitimize any agenda nor ennoble its victims.  Given the Muslim Brotherhood’s violent past and fascist proclivities, to see them now as practitioners of Gandhian non-cooperation, as some commentators have claimed, is absurd.  If the goal of the military is to marginalize the Muslim Brotherhood, then that is a worthwhile goal, worthy of American support.  If violence is inevitable, then preemptive violence is, perhaps, a doubtful way to achieve that goal, even though the vast majority of Egyptians seem to support it.  It is better to respond to inevitable violence than to start it.  Some of the Brotherhood’s softer support could have been weaned away, but never at the expense of implementing some portion of their hateful agenda as a sop.  That would be right opportunism and is never an effective tactic.

The Egyptian military has its own questionable agenda having to do with establishing itself as an élite.  It has used the public revulsion against the Muslim Brotherhood’s anti-democratic behavior for its own purposes, which has led to its questionable use of preemptive violence.  But that revulsion is real and could be used as leverage to move the military powers-that-be, if our diplomacy is smart.

But the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood could be included within a democratic polity, as many self-proclaimed pundits have demanded, is an illusion, a chimera, and not one iota of diplomatic effort should be wasted in that direction.  Democracy is a three-legged stool, and credible elections is only one of those legs.  The other two are an independent judiciary and a vibrant and active civil society.  Predictably, Mohammed Morsi moved against both those concepts, attempting to weaken the judiciary and set himself above judicial review and arresting foreign members of resident NGOs whose mission, perhaps a quixotic one, was to jump start civil society in a country where no such thing exists. 

No Islamist group can countenance an independent judiciary or a civil society, which is exactly why American policy should be dedicated to establishing those things in the Muslim countries of the Middle East and moving the Egyptian military in that direction.  No Islamist group can tolerate a movement towards the education and rights of women, which is why those ideas should also be an integral part of a Middle East policy that genuinely promotes democracy instead of narrow interests. Instead of using the genuine public revulsion against the Muslim Brotherhood as a leverage point, we are calling for reconciliation and quick new elections, which will accomplish nothing except gratifying American sensibilities.  

The Rhetoric of Moral Superiority, A Response to Saree Makdisi

I confess that UCLA English professor, Saree Makdisi, has become a favorite target, perhaps because I find it appalling that someone so rhetorically inept gets a tenured position in a university English department.  But such is the state of the academy.  This piece is in response to his LA Times Op-Ed justifying Helen Thomas’ ugly remarks about Israel.


I always look forward to Mr. Makdisi’s columns so I can show my English students another example of truly bad rhetoric.  His recent column on the ugly remarks by Helen Thomas did not disappoint.  One need not reject his claim that “Palestinians were forcibly removed from their homeland in 1948” to understand that his argument is specious; one need only recognize that claim as incomplete to see the flaw in his rhetoric.  Historical truth rarely issues in such one-sided statements as Mr. Makdisi makes.  Israeli historians have never avoided the conclusion that atrocities were committed on both sides during the lamentable events of 1948.  Claiming moral superiority for one side only in a historical dispute will vitiate any arguments based on that claim.  Mr. Makdisi indulges heavily in the rhetoric of moral superiority.

Let us admit that at the founding of the State of Israel, 850,000 people were evicted at gunpoint from the homes and villages where their families had lived for 500 years and forced to flee with only what they could carry, their property being confiscated by the state.  I am not talking about the Palestinians, however, but about the Jews from the Arab countries that had declared war on Israel.  These people Mr. Makdisi finds it convenient not to mention when he talks of forcible removal.  Fortunately, these refugees found a country willing to take them in and make them citizens.  Those Palestinians, who fled for whatever reasons, did not. 

Why doesn’t the right of return, which Mr. Makdisi is so quick to embrace, pertain to these refugees as it as it does to the Palestinians?  Where is Mr. Makdisi’s compassion for these refugees?  Selective compassion is chauvinism.  Fortunately, I have a solution to the problem of the right of return.  I propose that the Arab countries that evicted their Jewish citizens and confiscated their property pay for that property plus interest and that this money be turned over to whatever authority the Palestinians have chosen to represent themselves in lieu of the right of return, to be distributed as they see fit.  Certainly, Mr. Makdisi will support me in this proposal since it recognizes injustices to both communities.

Mr. Makdisi, once again, touts his single state solution to the problem of Palestine, which would end Israel’s essence as a Jewish state.  Let us remember that at the same time as the founding of Israel, another country was created by partition to house a specifically religious community, Pakistan.  Greater violence attended the founding of Pakistan than even the founding of Israel.  Millions of Hindus were evicted from Pakistan, and millions of Muslims left India, the difference being, however, that India had no policy of forcibly evicting non-Hindus and confiscating their property while Pakistan had exactly that policy of forcibly removing non- Muslims and confiscating their property.  Simple justice would require that Mr. Makdisi support the right of Hindus to return to Pakistan and reclaim their property as he supports the right of Palestinians to return to Israel.  It is curious that those who challenge Israel’s right to be a Jewish state never challenge Pakistan’s right to be a Muslim state.  Mr. Makdisi should be more careful when accusing others of racism and hypocrisy. 

Another corollary of the rhetoric of moral superiority is the belief that foolish and vicious statements made by the other side allow one to ignore or to justify the foolish and vicious voices from one’s own side.  And so Mr. Makdisi’s column duly quotes foolish statements from Israeli reactionaries as proof of Israeli moral turpitude and bad intentions which justify his sympathy for Helen Thomas and allow him to dismiss the reaction to the ugliness of her remarks.  Such finger-pointing is childish, at best.  It is the responsibility of each community to hold their own accountable for what they say.  Fortunately, Israel has laws and an independent judiciary that would prevent Avigdor Liebermann from carrying out his foolishness.  But who in the Muslim community would stop Hamas, if they ever got the opportunity, from carrying out the threats in their charter to exterminate the Jews of Israel, and which calls Jews “the brothers of apes and pigs?”  It is hypocritical of Mr. Makdisi to claim he dislikes Helen Thomas’ comments and then call others hypocrites and racists for the same sentiments.  If he truly believes that Helen Thomas should not have said those things, then let him go to Gaza and to the West Bank and speak against the rhetoric of moral superiority which so disturbs that community.  The readers of the Los Angeles Times do not need his scolding.

Je Suis Charlie

A Response to “The problem with ‘Je suis Charlie’” (LA Times 1/18/15)

I generally look forward to Op-Ed pieces by Prof. Makdisi.  They are rich sources of rhetorical blunders I can show to my students, proving that even tenured English professors have trouble making sense in print.  His latest foray into the thickets of rhetoric, “The problem with ‘Je suis Charlie’” (LA Times 1/18/15), takes a more hateful turn as his self-righteous finger-pointing turns, ironically, on himself.  He scolds us for the racist mote in our eyes and can’t see the beam in his own (Matthew 7:1-5). 

As an example of the French hypocrisy about free speech, he points out that “the Cameroonian French satirical comedian, Dieudonné M'bala M'bala, has been repeatedly charged and convicted of anti-Semitic hate speech because his stand-up routine contained material that is no doubt offensive to some . . .”  “Offensive to some!” –Really, Prof. Makdisi, can’t you see that anti-Semitic speech is hateful to all, to humanity?  Or is it only Jews and their sympathizers who might object?  Who has the double standard here?

Nor does Charlie Hebdo itself escape Prof. Makdisi’s dreadful finger: “Even Charlie Hebdo has it limits. In 2008 it fired one of its cartoonists, Maurice Sinet, for what was taken to be an anti-Semitic slur.” M. Sinet’s cartoon included the old anti-Semitic canard that Jews control the financial world, yet Prof. Makdisi tells us that this lie is only “taken” by some to be anti-Semitic, leaving open the possibility that it might be true.  Prof. Makdisi seems overly eager to lift the opprobrium from anti-Semitism.

Perhaps Charlie Hebdo understands, as Prof. Makdisi does not, the difference between hate speech and satire.    It is hate speech to insinuate the lie that Jews control finance.  It is not hate speech to satirize religious dogma as barbaric and outdated.  In fact, Charlie Hebdo has never satirized Muslims, nor has it satirized Christians or Jews.  What it has satirized is religious dogma and has done so in uncompromising terms wherever it is found.  To whatever extent your sense of religion depends on unquestionable dogma, to that extent you will be scandalized by Charlie Hebdo.  If Islam is more scandalized than other religions by satirical attacks on religious dogma, that is not Charlie Hebdo’s fault.  Perhaps Prof. Makdisi can explain to us why Islam is especially touchy about attacks on dogma.  It is true that the Spanish Inquisition also had no sense of humor about attacks on religious dogma, but Christianity has gone through a reformation since then.  Islam has not. Might Muslim touchiness about dogma have something to do with the fact that Islam has never gone through a reformation, as have Christianity and Judaism?  Is it racist to point out that fact?

Prof. Makdisi most wants to excoriate the “Je suis Charlie” sayers for playing into what he calls the post-colonial “’us’/’them’ binary lines: ’We’ in the West are rational, good, modern and free (just don't bring up the sordid legacy of colonialism, slavery, religious wars, etc.), while ‘they’ are backward, bad, irrational and violent.”  But Prof. Makdisi has created his own false binary, dividing the world up into victims and victimizers.  We Westernizers are the evil victimizers who unjustly “revile persecuted minorities,” and whose virtue is destroyed by the terrible things we do in his parentheses; while they, the unjustly persecuted victims, are pure and innocent because they are a “reviled and vulnerable minority.” 

Never mind that he is begging the question by inferring that outrage over the Charlie Hebdomassacre necessarily plays into this supposed post-colonial binary, he needs to be more careful about including parenthetical remarks in which a list of historical wrongs vitiates whatever virtue is being claimed. (My students will point out that in his parenthetical remark, Prof. Makdisi has simultaneously accomplished a false equivalency fallacy, a straw man fallacy, and thrown in a red herring for good measure.)  Such parenthetical remarks can also vitiate the supposed virtue and innocence of his “reviled and vulnerable minority.”  (Never should we mention the brutal Arab conquests, the forced conversions, the enslavement of and violence against infidels throughout Islamic history, the particularly brutal nature of the Arab slave trade that decimated black Africa in which males were castrated, the persistence of slavery in some Muslim countries even today, the denigration of women in the Muslim world, female circumcision, the selling of girls into marriage slavery, the sale of the old, Czarist anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in state run bookstores throughout the Muslim world, etc.)  Creating false binaries is a foolish game, and Prof. Makdisi should be more careful before attempting, Gulliver-like, to jump over this particular cow dung.

Prof. Makdisi lectures us on the true nature of satire, telling us that “The great satirists, including Swift, Byron and Molière, didn't direct their barbs at reviled and vulnerable minorities . . .” He seems not to know much about Swift, or at least has never read Swift’s “A Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit” in which Swift reviles Puritans in no uncertain terms and even makes them look funny, or the brutal religious satire of “A Tale of a Tub.” (Have qualifications for tenure in English departments sunk so low?)

Would it be racist to satirize the lack of outrage in the Muslim world for a Saudi pro-democracy blogger’s being sentenced to a thousand lashes for blasphemy?  (Yes, that’s right, a thousand lashes!)  The Saudis have mercifully allowed him to recover from the first set of fifty lashes before they apply the next set.  Is my ironic use of “mercifully” to emphasize Saudi religious barbarism an anti-Muslim racist taunt because they are a “reviled and vulnerable minority” (all 1.7 billion of them)?  Prof. Makdisi would have us believe so.  Do I find Saudi dogmatism revolting only because of my tainted Western imagination full of false “Western values?” Have I lost the right to criticize the cruelty and barbarism of Wahhabi dogma because the Inquisition burned heretics at the stake?  To all these propositions, Prof. Makdisi has argued yes.

But that Muslim indifference to the cruelty of dogma is real, and that makes it a legitimate target for satire that opposes religious dogma.  No post-colonial binary will make it less so.  I hope whoever might satirize this Muslim yawn before the cruelty and barbarism of their own dogma will make that satire as brutal and hard-hitting as Swift’s treatment of the Puritans.  It deserves nothing less.

Here’s another serious problem with Prof. Makdisi’s take on the matter.  By claiming that “Je suis Charlie” is an anti-Muslim racist taunt, he’s denying the possibility of a space where Muslims and non-Muslims can come together to protest the corrosive effects of religious dogma in the Muslim world and denying a voice to those Muslims who want to make that protest. He’s making the political Left an inhospitable place for making that protest, and lending aid and comfort to the reactionary powers in the Muslim world who exploit that dogma. 

Prof. Makdisi believes that the existence of his binary makes hypocrites of us all and that “Je suis Charlie” is itself a racist taunt.  In his mouth, “Western values” becomes a pejorative merely because they are Western, and anti-Semitism is possibly justifiable and is only a problem for those who object to it.  It seems Prof. Makdisi has some false binary problems of his own.  So I say without embarrassment and with enthusiasm, in solidarity with those who satirize religious dogma, “Je suis Charlie!”