Friday 21 September 2007

Learning to live with Islamism?

William Dalrymple floats a new, improved version of Blowback Theory here. Not only is western foreign policy directly responsible for Islamist terrorism - 'As long as the west interferes in the Muslim world, bombs will go off' says Dalrymple with astonishing crudity - but it must also bear the blame for the rise of political Islam throughout the Middle East. Apparently the successes of religious parties in Egypt, Pakistan and Gaza are all the west's fault. In classic 'root cause' style, there's no sense that Islamists might have motives and purposes of their own, or indeed any agency beyond simply 'reacting' to western initiatives (an assumption that some might describe as implicitly racist).

Dalrymple writes about 'legitimate Muslim anger' behind the rise of Islamism. I know the Nazi analogy is overworked, but this is like using 'legitimate' German anger over the Versailles Treaty to excuse Nazism. It may (partly) explain it, but it doesn't justify it. The Nazi analogy is also useful in countering Dalrymple's plea that the west should learn to live and work with elected Islamists, simply because they have a democratic mandate. Should Britain have tolerated Nazism because Hitler had won a general election? At least one critical commenter on Dalrymple's piece has made the comparison with Chamberlain: I think they have a point.

I've written elsewhere about the chimera of 'moderate' Islamism. Dalrymple doesn't explain his reasons for defining the Islamists of Hamas or the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as more 'moderate' than (say) those of al-Qaida. Perhaps they're a tad less anti-semitic, or marginally less likely to execute adulterers or homosexuals, or less inclined to lock up followers of other faiths? I think we should be told.

As in his previous Guardian piece, Dalrymple uses the lazy tactic of labelling all western hostility to political Islam as 'neoconservative': as if there could be no liberal or leftist critique of this intolerant and patriarchal ideology. He mentions that Arab populations have turned in their 'anger' to religious rather than 'liberal secular' parties, but he doesn't appear to lament the fact. Nowhere in his article is there the slightest criticism of Islamism (all his venom is reserved for the west - again, in classic 'blowback' style). This, coming from a supposed western liberal, is a betrayal not only of progressive, secular forces in the Arab and majority-Muslim world, but also of those - women, gays, religious minorities, political opponents - who will suffer under the repressive heel of political Islam.


Anonymous said...

It’s really quite strange. For a group of people who want to be perceived as intelligent, knowledgeable and, perhaps above all else, culturally sensitive, few of these authors really take the time to study the language and history of the people they are writing about. A failure of understanding facts on the ground—that is, endogenous factors—leads them to search for exogenous reasons for a particular group’s behavior. Rarely, if ever, do we get to read about these groups on their own terms. As an ameliorative to this sort of thing, I recommend reading Efraim Karsh’s “Islamic Imperialism: A History.” Unlike Dalrymple, Karsh is an actual historian, not a travel writer.

An excerpt is available here:
To intellectuals, foreign-policy experts, and politicians alike, "empire" and "imperialism" are categories that apply exclusively to the European powers and, more recently, to the United States. In this view of things, Muslims, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, are merely objects--the long-suffering victims of the aggressive encroachments of others. Lacking an internal, autonomous dynamic of its own, their history is rather a function of their unhappy interaction with the West, whose obligation it is to make amends. This perspective dominated the widespread explanation of the 9/11 attacks as only a response to America's (allegedly) arrogant and self-serving foreign policy, particularly with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Martin said...

Thanks for the comment - and I like your blog (now added to my blogroll).

I agree that Dalrymple's interventions in this area diminish his stature as a writer. I've been a fan of his travel books in the past, but the way he smuggles tendentious contemporary analogies into his 'historical' writings has put me off reading 'The Last Mughal' - a book I might otherwise have found appealing.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Martin. I'll put you in my blogroll as well. In case you are interested, I came to your blog via Bob from Brockley.

I have no problem with travel writers, or pretty much anyone, voicing their opinion. What I dislike is when these people present themselves as professional historians (or political scientists, or whatever) when they are not.

I thought you might be interested in reading this:

Forgetting Orwell's Lessons for the Left: Useful Idiots and Fellow Travelers in the 21st Century