I have been trying to wrap my head around Paul Berman's nearly incomprehensible screed Why Radical Islam Just Won’t Die and for the longest time couldn't figure it out.
In his defense, the headline is probably not his fault. He makes a point of using the more accurate term "radical Islamism" to describe a political movement that exploits the symbology and traditions of Islam in its attempt to gain adherents. But he provides us with exactly two examples of radical Islamism and here's where I start to have problems:
I declared myself happy in principle with the notion of overthrowing Saddam Hussein, just as I was happy to see the Taliban chased from power. There are many ways I'd describe Saddam Hussein - for example, as an odious mass murderer whose hand Donald Rumsfeld was all too eager to embrace - but he, and his regime, were the exact opposite of the Taliban. In fact, Saddam was loathed by the radical Islamists descended from Qutb, decried as a secularist. He thought himself the reincarnation of Saladin, not Muhammad
So what do these two utterly different ideologies (to the extent Baathism is an ideology) have in common? I honestly couldn't think of much, but I'm no expert (and if you happen to be a scholar of the area, please enlighten us in comments if I'm wrong here). But finally, towards the end of the essay, Berman tells us:
...instead of enjoying the unstinting support of their non-Muslim colleagues, the Muslim liberals find themselves routinely berated in the highbrow magazines and the universities as deracinated nonentities, alienated from the Muslim world. Or they find themselves pilloried as stooges of the neoconservative conspiracy — quite as if any writer from a Muslim background who fails to adhere to at least a few anti-imperialist or anti-Zionist tenets of the Islamist doctrine must be incapable of thinking his or her own thoughts.So that's it. Sort of. The defining ideologies of radical Islamism are "anti-imperialism" and "anti-Zionism." All the rest is frou-frou. Well, actually, so is anti-imperialism - after all, Saddam overran Kuwait and the oft-stated goal of radical Islamists to re-establish the Caliphate. Some anti-imperialists. Perhaps he means "anti-Americanism," but if he does, he should come out and say so.
I don't think I'm erecting a straw man here by saying that leaves us ,in Berman's world, with anti-Zionism as the only essential characteristic of radical Islamism, or at least the only one he deemed important enough to mention here. But hold on, it doesn't even appear that "anti-Zionism" per se fully defines radical Islamism. Rather radical Islamism seems to be a reaction against the specific kind of Zionism held by American neo-conservatives.
In which case, I am a radical Islamist. But there's a problem with that. You see, I'm not a radical Islamist. I'm not even an anti-Zionist, as some irate commenters here would be happy to inform Dr. Berman. I fully support Israel's right to exist even as I strongly protest their treatment of Palestinians, the bombing of Lebanon, and other actions.
It is precisely Berman's kind of incoherent pseudo-reasoning that led us into the current mess, at least on the intellectual level. Saddam did not equal Mullah Omar. Wahabbism is not the dominant practice in Iran. It is impossible to imagine enthusiastic support for Al Qaeda in Iraq from the mullahs in Iran. And strenuous objection to Likudism is not extremism, let alone de facto support for islamist goals.
I can only speak for myself but it distresses me to see the incomparably brave Ayaan Hirsi Ali align herself with the neoconservatives, even as I understand it - what does she know or care about American foreign policy except to the extent it impacts her immediate concerns? Those of us who know neoconservatism and the damage it's done are just as understandably repulsed, reluctant to enter into an alliance with Ali that provides these scoundrels and buffoons any credibility.
In short, Dr. Berman: it's the neo-conservatives, stupid. True, liberals need to articulate better an objection to radical Islamism that will enable people like Hirsi Ali to join us. But that is no reason for liberals to form an alliance of convenience with some of the dumbest people on the planet. Put another way, just as a viable alternative to bin Laden is not George W. Bush, a viable opposition to radical Islamism is not neo-conservatism.