Walter Russell Mead was one of the two writers I quoted with respect and approval in yesterday’s “The Cost of Islamophobia” post, as I believed his analysis of Turkey’s predicament supported the insistence on distinctions between different types of political, cultural, and religious Islamic expressions. I consider such an approach intellectually, morally, and strategically more sound than the alternatives, and I therefore believe further that it should be a leading element of our response to aggressive, radical Islamism. Before proceeding, however, to a closer consideration of counterarguments and other observations offered by regular and visiting commenters, I think it’s both fitting and clarifying to begin with a coinage of Meads – “Goo Goo Genocidaire” – that came up in the discussion, and which someone from the mysterious circle of friends of our visitor Christian Zionist supposedly applied to your humble blogger.
Though I had read the piece in which Mead introduced the phrase, I didn’t immediately recognize it, perhaps because I rather like Mead and his work in general, and preferred to put what I considered a substandard effort out of my mind. Not that the piece couldn’t have been worse: To Mead’s credit, he doesn’t rest on common conservative substitutions of Iran (or whatever other enemy) for Nazi Germany, Ahmadinejad (or whatever other enemy leader) for Hitler, Obama (or whatever other negotiator) for Chamberlain, and self (especially!) for Churchill. He writes with an awareness of the differences between Hitler and Germany or between Stalin and Russia, or between the real threat of Nazi militarism and the arguable justice of German claims and aspirations. He glosses over some vexing contradictions – the wartime alliance between the good guys and the favorite of the GGG’s, Uncle Joe; the rightwing isolationists and industrial profiteers who would figure prominently in liberal and leftwing histories – but he at least acknowledges in passing that the appeasers were not the only actors in the historical drama in addition to the lead characters.
All the same, it seems obvious already in Mead’s sub-title – “The Blood Is Dripping From Their Hands” – that the writer has an axe to grind and enjoys the noise, and he quickly confirms the impression in a paragraph like the following:
The people I have in mind are the ‘goo-goo genocidaires,’ the willfully blind reformers, civil society activists, clergy, students and others whose foolishness and ignorance was a necessary condition for tens of millions of deaths in the last hundred years. Unreflective, self-righteous ‘activists’ thought that to espouse peace was the same thing as to create or safeguard it. As a result, tens of millions died. Unless this kind of thinking is exposed and repudiated, it is likely to lead to as many or more deaths in the 21st.
Any student of the world wars has probably already written, or assigned and graded, essays on various sides of this or similar theses on the general subject of whose fault “it” was. Contrary to Mead’s guiding assumption – that the “appeasers” have not been blamed enough – the notion of their culpability and co-responsibility is a commonplace of conservative history, an ideological cliché, as every conventional contemporary usage of the word “appeasement” will immediately demonstrate. Attaching a silly phrase, a new-old blood libel, and a sophomoric, one-sided historical recitation does nothing for any serious discussion of the threat from Iran and the manner in which the free world of 2010 is meeting or failing to meet it.
Now that I’m done dumping on my buddy Walter Russell, I’ll note that his essay deals exclusively with the GGG’s in relation to past and present national threats and conventional, state to state diplomacy and military confrontation. The words “Islam” and “Muslim” appear nowhere within the post (except indirectly, as a category “tag”). Unsurprisingly, however, they turn up with high frequency in the post’s comment threads, just as Mead’s insalubrious coinage has turned up in our own discussion of “Islamophobia.”
Such transference or re-designation of blame – in this case, Mullahocracy/Iran -> Islam – is commonplace on the conservative right. As I’ve argued repeatedly – especially here, but in a number of other recent posts, comments, and e-mails – the combative refusal to distinguish between radical Islamism and Islam amounts to a central trope of current rightwing discourse on the “clash of civilizations” and the (conflict formerly known as the) “War on Terror.” The stance is inseparable from a further insistence on something inherently different about Islam as such – a difference to be explained by an implicitly hostile outsider’s exegesis of sacred texts, as supported by whatever gathering of disparate and heterogeneous materials for the prosecution.
Christian Zionist summed up this perspective on the prior thread:
Islam is not purely a religion but an amalgam of religion with an authoritarian ideology of expansionist, supra-governmental ambitions. In this, it distinguishes itself from all other religions: Christianity abandoned such ambitions in the centuries since the Englightenment; Judaism, Bahai, Hindutva, Jains, Confucians, and Buddhists never had such world-wide ambitions.
Attempts to analyze this view, and especially any offers to compare “anti-Islam” to Islam in similar terms – requiring a comparative examination of moral philosophies, belief systems, histories, and everyday customs and practices – will tend to be rejected out of hand, and result in accusations of “moral relativism,” “moral equivalence,” “betrayal,” “naivete,” etc., often accompanied by trivializing and insulting gestures. That is, of course, how we know we are dealing with ideology in a charged political context: Agreement and assent are treated as compulsory; hesitation will lead to hostility directly varying with degree and stubbornness. Name-calling ensues as a matter of course, because name-calling/naming is part of creating collective in- and out-groups: heroic defenders of the good and holy on one side – you and Hitler on the other side. At this point, someone often comes along to shout a plague on both your houses, on all houses, on house-making itself, regardless of who performed the initial construction, thus founding a new house of radical neo-anti-housemakers. And so it goes.
Maybe we can try instead to stick to the main questions instead in further discussion and investigation. What is the best way for us to deal with and talk about Islam and Islam-aligned political movements? What real trade-offs will likely accompany or have observably accompanied the answers we favor?