Friday 20 April 2007

From Stalinism to Islamism: the journey of a French intellectual

The English edition of Asharq al-Awsat, the Arabic International Daily, carries an interesting review by Amir Taheri of a new biography of the French intellectual Roger Garaudy. Reading Garaudy's name immediately took me back to the halcyon days of the mid-1970s when his book The Alternative Future was one of the blue Pelicans that lined my bookshelf, alongside other classics of the time such as Ernst Fischer's Marx in his own Words and Alan Watts' Way of Zen. Ah, those were the days, when the future seemed to belong to a heady synthesis of humanistic marxism, oriental spirituality and post-Vatican 2 liberation theology.

Garaudy was originally an enthusiastically Stalinist member of the PCF, the French Communist Party, but post-Hungary started to look elsewhere for a spiritual home. By the early 70s he was dabbling in Christianity, but as Taheri relates he soon tired of it and experimented with environmentalism and oriental philosophy, before converting to Islam. His route to conversion was an unusual one, since it grew out of a fascination with the ideas of Libya's Colonel Kaddafi. He later associated himself with the Muslim Brotherhood and Khomeini's Iran, becoming a notorious Holocaust denier and conspiracy theorist who claimed that 9/11 was organised by the Bush administration. Taheri compares Garaudy's intellectual trajectory with that of his fellow French ex-communist Michel Foucault, who was 'fascinated by the Khomeinist revolution in Iran and in his typical hyperbolic mode wrote of " the spiritual explosion" he had witnessed during his visits to a Tehran set on fire and pillaged by revolutionary mobs.' Foucault's case is explored in Danny Postel's recent book on Iran (see this post) and more fully in Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson's book.

In summarising Garaudy's journey from Stalinism to reactionary Islamism, Taheri provides a useful reminder of the similarities between these apparently very different forms of totalitarianism, and their similar appeal for a certain kind of personality. (Garaudy as a French, intellectual version of George Galloway, perhaps?) Taheri is also scathing about western intellectuals who dabble in ideological movements of whose daily reality they know little:

Garaudy could admire Kaddafi because he did not have to live under the colonel's rule in Libya. He could have dinner with Khatami and discuss philosophy because he knew that he would leave Tehran a few days later loaded with gifts of carpets and caviar. Garaudy could mourn the demise of Saddam Hussein because he is sure he would never experience what the people of Iraq suffered at Halabcheh or during the Anfal campaign.

As a latter day Proteus, Garaudy could change opinion, ideology and religion as frequently as he changes his shirts because he happens to live in Europe at a happy time of peace and security. Others in other parts of the world, however, do not enjoy such luxuries. They could be exiled, imprisoned or killed for "the crime" of changing their mind and offending the established order.

I came across this review via the excellent Magazine Roundup at signandsight.

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