Monday 4 June 2007

A clarion call for the left

Speaking of Paul Berman, there's an excellent symposium in the latest Dissent on what can be learned from the Iraq war, and Berman's contribution is the highlight. Here, from his closing paragraphs, is one of the key lessons he draws, which I make no apology for quoting in full:

The intellectuals and the liberal left should defend and promote the liberals and freethinkers of the Arab and Muslim world, the outright liberals and not just the people who are described, not always accurately, as 'moderates.' We should do this in the same fashion that some of us used to do during the cold war, when it was common for intellectuals in the West to defend the dissidents of the East bloc. This, too, doesn’t happen much today.

Why not? A main reason is that, in the West, an amazing number of people remain biased in one fashion or another against Muslims and especially against Arabs—remain attached to the notion that Arabs cannot reach a level of civilization that is capable of producing democracy. There is a right-wing way of expressing this particular bias, but also a left-wing way, having to do with multiculturalism, which leads people to conclude that if the Arab world is awash in paranoid doctrines and grotesque dictatorships, we mustn’t judge anyone harshly, and who are we to say that liberalism and prosperity are superior to tyranny and poverty, and aren’t some of those paranoias true, and so on? In this manner, left-wing tolerance and right-wing intolerance end up oddly resembling each other. A first component of our effort, then, should be to shed light on the unfair and cruel assumptions that so many people make about the Arab world, and sometimes about other parts of the Muslim world, as well.

We should have been doing this kind of intellectual work all along. Anyway, we should do it now—regardless of what steps the American and allied militaries take or fail to take in the near future, and regardless of what steps are taken by the diplomats. The soldiers and the diplomats may well end up reverting to the previous American and Western policy—the policy that seeks to achieve regional stability through backroom deals with sinister dictators. This is the policy of malign stability, which so many people advocate today in a variety of colorful ways: isolationists on isolationist grounds, pragmatists on pragmatic grounds, anti-imperialists on anti-imperialist grounds, and so forth. But our own role should be to advocate something else. Our role should be to clarify the ideas that influence the region. To demystify the demagogueries of mad ideologies. To explain the principles of liberal thought and, in this way, to help lay an intellectual basis for a democratic future. Our role should be to offer solidarity to the authentic liberals of the Arab and Muslim world, who have been horribly betrayed by American and other Western governments and even by the left-wing and liberal intellectuals of the West. How bland this program of mine sounds, when I lay the words out across the page! But this bland program of speaking about ideas and ideologies and championing the liberal thinkers has always been crucially important for the Middle East, far more important in the long run than anything achievable by military or even by diplomatic means.

This is a clarion call for the antitotalitarian liberal left.


Tom said...

A call we should all heed. How that is to be productively done is quite a different question...

Martin said...

Thanks for the comment. Maybe bloggers can play a part by highlighting the work of liberals, leftists and feminists in the Arab world - and linking to their blogs and websites. Maryam Namazie would be a good example. For others in Iran, see Danny Postel's book, mentioned in an earlier post of mine.