Thursday 13 September 2007

Buruma on 'neoleftism', Garton Ash on the terror threat

Ian Buruma uses his review of Norman Podhoretz's new book in the latest NYRB to reply to those 'neoleftists' (he means anti-totalitarian leftists: the 'neo' is of course meant to suggest a link with the neocons) who have accused him of a less-than-wholehearted defence of liberal values in the war of ideas with radical Islam. He specifically mentions Paul Berman's piece on Tariq Ramadan in The New Republic and the back-and-forth spat between Buruma, Timothy Garton Ash and Pascal Bruckner that's exhaustively documented at

Buruma, whose review contains some reassuring clarifications regarding his positions on fundamentalism and liberalism, seems to think that 'neoleftists' are denying his right to criticise figures such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In fact, what irritated Bruckner, Berman and others was the way both Buruma and Garton Ash accused Hirsi Ali of exchanging one fanatical creed -fundamentalist Islam - for another -'Enlightenment fundamentalism' -as if there were some kind of equivalence between the two.

Coincidentally, Garton Ash also demonstrates today that he's really on the side of the (liberal) angels, in a Guardian article which is refreshingly realistic about the continuing threat from jihadist terrorism. Drawing comparisons with the threat posed by the Red Army Faction and their ilk in the 1970s, Ash warns that the real front line in the war against terror is not in Iraq or Afghanistan but here, at home, in Europe:

The larger part of this struggle, and the more important in the longer term, is the battle for the hearts and minds of young European Muslims - usually men - who are not yet fanatical violent jihadists, but could become so. All over our continent, and around its edges, there are hundreds of thousands of young Muslim men who could go either way. They could become tomorrow's bombers; or they could become good citizens, funders of our faltering state pension schemes, tomorrow's Europeans.

Garton Ash offers no easy solutions for luring these potential jihadists away from extremism, but he is encouraged by the recent high-profile conversions from Islamism of people like Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz. His article is refreshingly free (for a Guardian 'Comment' piece) of attempts to locate the 'causes' of terrorism in our old friend British foreign policy. The only slightly Milne-ish / Bunting-esque note is struck in this sentence, which the sub-editor chooses to highlight in bold alongside the piece:

The returning soldier may do more to reduce the threat of terrorism in Britain by his off-duty attitude to British Muslims in his home town than by anything he did, gun in hand, in Basra.

It's not clear exactly what Garton Ash means by this, but I don't like the implication either that hostility to Islam (rather than the influence of a malign extremist cult) might 'explain' terrorism, or that mollifying potential terrorists might somehow persuade them to be good citizens. Still, it's only one sentence in an otherwise welcome piece. Buruma ends on this sombre but cautiously optimistic note:

If we are calm, clear sighted and resolute, we will eventually win this struggle and remain free. A continent that has rid itself of the horrors of imperialism, fascism and communism will see off this lesser menace too. But it will take many years and we had better shape up to it.

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