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.
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.