[Readers be warned, this post contains subject matter already discussed elsewhere and is of no particular relevance to this blog’s usual content. ]
Matthew Yglesias and Johnathan Chait are in a tiff about comments made by the editor-in-chief of the New Republic, Marty Peretz. Peretz’s track record of making ill-informed, nonsensical and often bigoted commentary about Muslims, Arabs and other exotic peoples is long. He caught more heat earlier this year for making racist comments about Latinos and Hispanics, but usually gets less flack on his rather regular pronouncements on Arab and Muslim topics. Yglesias takes the following paragraph from a recent Peretz blog post as insinuating that Americans need “more anti-Muslim sentiment”:
And the truth is that it is not yet clear in the president’s head–or he is not yet being candid (which is my substitute for “frank” and “honest”)–that you can’t have a true view of routine mass murder in the contemporary world without having quite a harsh view of Islam today. It is unfair to the American people and to the peoples of the liberal world for the administration to pretend that the perpetrators of terror are not animated by some all-consuming ideology. It is not an abstraction that animates them. It is not a game of hide-and-seek with the CIA.
Yglesias finds this “depressingly nuts from the proprietor of an erstwhile liberal publication.” Unfortunately, one finds bigoted and uninformed writing about Muslims from liberals and conservatives; and polling data often shows the American public to already have quite enough anti-Muslim sentiment (at least a Muslim might say so).
Chait responds by quoting the next paragraph:
And, yes, of course, there are millions upon millions of Muslims–pious or more than a bit diffident–for whom Islam is a religious faith, a culture, and an anchor of personality. They are not part of the Islam which has been overwhelmed by the poisonous politics of the jihadists and those who routinely yield to them. It is time that the administration make this distinction.
He has it for himself that Peretz should “speak for himself” but:
my basic view is that the Islamic world today is not unlike the Christian world before the enlightenment (a time, of course, when Islam was more tolerant and advanced than Christendom.) It is a culture where notions of liberalism and religious tolerance are largely foreign — where even the most liberal mass movement that can be found, the Green movement in Iran, has to make its case in religious terms in order to have any chance at legitimacy. I would not blame the mass of Muslims for al Qaeda’s terrorism any more than I’d blame the average medieval Christian for the Crusades. Still, an illiberal, non-secular culture like this is far more capable of producing, or even merely accepting, violence against non-believers qua non-believers.
“Liberalism and religious tolerance are largely foreign” is reflective of a historical illiteracy so pitiful as to turn Chait’s comments on Islam practically irrelevant. Religious tolerance in “modern Islam” is not “largely foreign” and neither is “liberalism,” depending on what one means by “liberalism”. This is after all something that is relative across time and space. That “religious tolerance” is foreign in modern Islam is to ignore the entire discourse on Islam surrounding non-Muslims as dhimmis and the long history of “Christendom” moving towards progressive demographic uniformity in religion, language, culture and race at which many westerners saw no problem with until the Holocaust. The Islamic notion of religious tolerance for minorities was light years ahead of any European notion of this until but two hundred years ago, ideally and practically. To call the Green Movement the “most liberal mass movement that can be found” in the Muslim world is foolish; one might look to Turkey and its Kemalists, who thought ardent secularists are more frequently than not Muslims too. But it is almost always the case that Turkey is labeled the “exception,” by persons such as Chait. One can also ask how many true “mass movements” are there in the Muslim world (or elsewhere) to start with; there are not many. And it comes as a given that a mass movement in one of the two real theocracies would use religious gloss; and what is it that is so especially liberal about the Green Movement beyond its own context? It is a fact that nowadays many, if not most, Muslim majority countries are backwaters ruled by repressive and illiberal elites. Their populations are frequently ignorant and as a result often intolerant. But that intolerance is not the result of Islam; it comes predominantly from culture (which has some doings with Islam), economics and circumstance. The antagonism between Muslims and Copts in Egypt is often put in religious terms but it has cultural and social and political roots that make any theological explanation quite hollow. Religious leaders, regardless of whether in in the minbar or the pulpit, are often political actors driven by the same craven urges as union leaders and party chiefs. And populations, illiterate and irritable, are easy to manipulate.
Chait has more, though:
A lot of liberals have an unfortunate tendency to brand as racist any analysis that holds one culture above another. But there’s nothing inherently racial in believing that the illiberal culture that dominates the Muslim world is a key source of the problem, just as it wouldn’t be racial make a sweeping indictment of pre-Enlightenment European culture. My belief is that, in the long run, relations between the Muslim world and the West will remain very difficult until the Muslim world has its enlightenment. In the meantime, American policymakers should do their best to reach out to Muslims and try to drive a wedge between the majority and the extremists.
Preferring one culture to another is not the same as regarding one as inferior. Peretz’s writing about Islam is surely not a form of racial prejudice, but it surely represents religious bigotry. This final paragraph would be more credulous if it considered that the United States supports very heavily the very authorities that block the road to “enlightenment” in the Muslim countries. A Muslim enlightenment is a fine idea, and indeed Muslim thinkers have advocated it and struggled for it for some time. They met opposition from sitting despots and foreign consuls in whose purely secular interest it was to preside over ignorant and decaying societies. One is reminded of Jamal al-din al-Afghani in this, who spent much time searching for a philosopher-king to see to a Muslim revival in modern and scientific terms. And that was a hundred years ago and al-Afghani’s biggest trouble were European powers who made him a political refugee practically everywhere he went. Today one sees similar activities by world powers that back repressive, illiberal regimes in Muslim majority countries without hesitation; and the consequences are what they are.
In any case, let Peretz speak for himself. Chait’s defense of his comments on Muslims and Islam ought to be put against other comments, recent and past, made by Peretz. From here why not bear out some choice bits of savage wisdom from Martin Peretz on things from the lands of Araby and Barbary.
A recent post has these lines:
The shock of Detroit has probably been most traumatic for Obama himself. He really did believe that the world of Islam was a civilized order, and he simply can’t believe it now. Or can he?
The gist here seems to be that the “world of Islam” is not a “civilized order.”
In another post these paragraphs inform readers of the disposition of Muslims and Islam, past and present:
But what has been the animating motive for the terrorist efforts to dispose of Americans and Europeans, Hindus and Christians, Jews and non-believers, and, of course, Muslims, albeit from antagonistic or divergent sects–infidels and heretics, really–in the religious vocabulary? It is an ideological certainty laced through the Islamic tradition and the Islamic present.
The 95 men and boys murdered at the volleyball massacre in Shah Hassan Kehl are together the debris of this culture. They are not widely mourned. Only their mothers mourn. Why are there not protests in every Muslim city in the world at this deranged harvest of life? Or in London and Dearborn? I’ll tell you why. Because, in the minds of many, this mass killing was a mere tactic. Compare the silence (and the glee?) at what happened in Pakistan on that playing field to what happened almost everywhere after twelve Danish cartoonists published their imaginings of Mohammed.
The first paragraph identifies Islam with violence against non-Muslims and makes it an essential ideological element of the “Islamic tradition.” Peretz offers no evidence to substantiate the claim — no mention of any of the long standing legal frameworks established precisely to preserve non-Muslim populations under Muslim rule, if only to take their tax money, or any examination of Qur’anic opinions or otherwise. Instead, he uses the example in the second paragraph, accusing Muslims — because they did not rally protests at a terrorist attack as many did at the Danish cartoons — of watching murder with glee. This is evidently embedded in some obscurantist Islamic tradition, perhaps called the al-Abstraktiyya or al-Imajinariyya Order, to which just under a billion people belong in air-tight secrecy. Or perhaps Peretz is exaggerating the whole matter, in his quest to have it that Muslim terrorists are representative of the Islamic tradition as a whole and using the actions of lay people to justify a preconceived and yet unproven assumption about Islam and Muslims.
Not long ago, during the Gaza violence, Peretez wrote the following about Israel and the Palestinians:
The point is that civil society is impossible with 50 missiles a day raining on your head. And it is a civil society that is at stake here. Whether the Gaza Palestinians can ever have a truly civil society is another question, the answer to which — given the Arab societies that surround them — is probably “no.” Sorry to disappoint you.
Here the assumption is that Israelis are capable of a civil society and that Palestinians and Arabs are not. In their barbarism the Arabs, therefore, make civic life difficult for the Israelis. One must flatten the Arabs if he is to have a civil society for those who are capable of it. One might say that when it comes to Arabs Peretz does give evidence of racism. Where Muslims are concerned he simply substitutes in prejudice where other writers would offer insight or knowledge of some kind.
After the Pew Poll on American Muslims, Peretz wrote that “[t]he most shocking thing about this new poll, however, is that only 40 percent of Muslims living here believe that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks.” Today, according to the most recent issue of the Atlantic Monthly, something like 36% of all Americans think 9/11 was an inside job. Eeek.
Even if he concedes a lack of expertise, be assured that Peretz’s knowledge of Arabs and Islam is certified; he carries an ijazah!
I am not an expert in Islamic politics. Of course, I studied it, formally and informally, with eminent scholars, starting out with the greatest of them all, Elie Kedourie. I half suspect that I know more about Islam and the Arabs than President Obama. Nothing he has said leads me to think otherwise. You can judge me by what you know. But don’t credit the president with knowing more than he has shown. What he has not shown may be prejudices that even he understands are really leftist ideological blinders.
One can make a good case the president is lacking knowledge when it comes to Islam or the Muslim world; this blogger has no issue with that contention. But there is nothing in anything Marty Peretz has ever written that suggests special knowledge about Islam or the Arabs: he evidently does not know Arabic or Farsi or Turkish or any other language related to those subjects. Perhaps he uses MEMRI translations for his readers’ sake; more likely he cannot make out much else and finds that their selections fit into his world view. One finds only generalizations in his writing on Muslims or Arabs. This is contrasted with his study buddy, Elie Kedourie whose writing was meticulous and specific; and the man could at the very least read Arabic and used Arabic sources in his work. One might not agree with Kedourie’s conclusions on al-Afghani or the Hussein-McMahon correspondence or the like but he could at least point to specific evidence to back up those conclusions. One would be hard pressed to call Kedourie the “greatest” of Middle East scholars, based on his out put and its substance; there are greater scholars of his generation and later. But never mind that for credibility and eminence is not acquired by association but by work.
Peretz’s knowledge about Islam and Arabs can be seen in a post on Palestinian Christians. It leaves the reader in darkness.
Some 2 percent of the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza are Christians. Not so long ago they were roughly 15 percent of the Arab population. The rest are Muslims, all Sunnis. What explains the decline? Birth rates, of course. Christians are better educated than Muslims (all over the Middle East), and they know that if you want to raise a productive, truly loving, and educated family, you’d be wise to raise fewer children and give them all more attention.
The other reason that so many Christians have gradually abandoned Palestine is that their living among Muslims was a frightful experience. (Christians began decades back in deserting Iraq, too–at least, those who were not slaughtered.) Now, many Christian clergy have lined up against Israel, because they know that the Jews will not harm them. Moreover, they don’t want to and have no reason to. The Christian authorities in the territories (and in Jerusalem) try to pacify the Muslims by joining the ugly chorus against Israel. Although they have been playing this appeasement game for nearly a century, it has done them no good.
Curious, then, that Palestinian Christians (as well as Syrian Christians) were historically at odds with the Jewish population even before the Zionist migrations; and that European-style anti-Semitism arose first among Levantine Christians, then spreading to the Muslim populations (even Bernard Lewis concedes this). Palestinian Christians were among many of the first anti-Zionist activists (especially the Orthodox Christian population); the most militant Palestinian factions before the 1980s were founded and led by Christians — the PFLP and DFLP being cases in point. That Christians have “joined the chorus” is not the result of fear of domination by Muslims (at least not alone), but the result of long-standing inter-communal tensions between the mercantile classes of Levantine minorities, especially Orthodox Christians and Jews, and then the fact that the establishment of a Jewish state meant that Jewish immigrants would displace Muslims and Christians alike. Current sectarian tensions are the result of demography — ignore the foolish and snide remark that Muslims do not know how to raise healthy families — and two other factors: the rise of political Islamism (which is not specific to Palestine) and increased violence and repression as a result of the Israeli occupation. It is also easier for many Palestinian Christians to emigrate because of long standing Christian communities in the Palestinian Arab diaspora predating the Palestinian exodus. There are networks of Palestinians (and other Arab Christians) in South America, North America, Europe and west Africa that make the whole process somewhat less difficult for Christians than Muslims; and because they are often better educated than Muslims they have ever better opportunities even where they do not have relatives, this being the result of the partial old missionary schools. As the oriental Jews had their Alliance Israelite system, so too had the Christians the Protestant and Jesuit and Dominican schools. It is a tired trope that Palestinian Christians have left “because of the Muslims,” supported by some voices but rejected by many of Christians themselves. One cannot discount sectarianism, but it is not the sole factor at work today by any stretch.
He continues (note that Peretz mentions some of the points mentioned above, using them differently):
Arab nationalism in places like Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon was at bottom a secular creation of Christians (and even Jews) as a tactic to ward off a politics of Muslim fanaticism. This started as far back as the middle of the nineteenth century. But, as we know from the history of these three countries, nationalism is no one’s primary identification. Sectarian loyalty is. Nationalism came much later to Palestine, where the local Arabs were, in any case, politically backward. In any case, Palestine is a Christian idea. The first really important (also shoddy and romanticized) Palestinian book, The Arab Awakening, was written by an Anglican, George Antonius. Edward Said was an Anglican, and so were the heads of the ultra-Palestinian terrorist organizations. Yasir Arafat pretended to be a Palestinian nationalist. What he was truly was a militant Sunni in modern military garb. Certainly now, Palestinian nationalism, as you can tell just from reading the newspapers, is not exactly a healthy specimen. And its Muslim essence is apparent for all to see. That makes emerging Palestine more frightening to the Christians.
This is a crude rendering of Kedourie’s view on the subject, expressed in his essays “Religion and Politics,” “The Death of Adib Ishaq” and “The Politics of Political Literature: Kawakibi, Azoury and Jung”. The essential point is that minorities found secular nationalism to be an escape from domination by majorities (this argument has been made by others and is not especially original). “Religion and Politics” deals with this issue exactly and reaches a similar conclusion. The difference between Kedourie’s and Peretz’s take is that Kedourie considers that Christians looked at the nationalist movement as a way of combating domination by many other groups, not simply Muslims. Kedourie has it that Arab Orthodox political activists took to secular Arab nationalism under the influence of the Russian Church (which the Czar hoped to use in expanding Russia’s political influence into the Levant) with the goal of displacing Greek control over the clergy. Under the Ottomans there was no system of politics for individuals and religious communities (millets) were governed by their patriarchs and head rabbis, who brooked little dissension in their ranks (see the case of the false messiah Shabati Svi for how dissent was handled). In the Arabic-speaking provinces, ethnic Greeks dominated the Greek Orthodox Church to which most Levantine Arab Christians belonged — and an Arab could not rise beyond the rank of priest. To break that barrier, young men decided to look to other Orthodox communities in the Balkans who had also gotten rid of the Greek clergy and formed “national” churches and looked to form an Arab Orthodox Church in which Arabic-speakers could hold high rank. These efforts expanded, and created a drive to limit and then abolish all constraints imposed by sectarian institutions. This was abetted by European nationalist (and patriotic) ideals coming from the Protestant missionaries and elsewhere. Again, none of this is new, but Kedourie puts it in the wider framework of his belief that nationalism was exported to non-western societies from Europe for diverse reasons with bloody consequences because these societies were not “prepared” for the idea’s implications. The other critical part of this involves the powerful appeal of nationalism (and radicalism in general) to young, enlightened elites who were prevented from reaching their full worldly potential as a result of traditionalism and colonialism. Kedourie terms the failure of secular nationalism (and its “success” which he identifies with genocide) in the post-Ottoman states as a problem of dangerous European philosophy (see his essay on the Armenian and Assyrian genocides and the destruction of the Iraqi Jewish community in “Minorities,” and the book where his thesis is laid out Nationalism, as well as the introduction to Nationalism in Africa and Asia). Kedourie’s idea, spread over multiple essays, assigns a higher value to the order of the Ottoman system than the imposed European nation-state model, and it gleans with nostalgia. One can find much to object in it — yet one often finds other writers’ interpretation and use of it ever more troubling. This appears to be the framework Peretz is working off of with lazy opportunism. At least this is what one is reminded of when he reads this particular post. Consulting smarter men, in hopes of distilling Peretz’s mania, seems to only make it appear more off base and less informed. Indeed, Peretz is no expert on “Islamic politics.” His ijazah is in calumniation.
Then this idea of Yasser Arafat as a “militant Sunni”: it is true that he was a militant and that he was a Sunni Muslim — with an Egyptian accent. Peretz deserves a pat on the back for noticing this. But this hardly overrides his credentials as a cretinous, basically secular Palestinian nationalist with all the talents of the samassir. What it was that made Arafat not a nationalist — is Peretz insinuating that a Muslim cannot also be a nationalist? — is unclear because Peretz really has no incentive to prove a point (he would likely say that a MEMRI video or article about a band of Muslims acting badly would do that for him).
Peretz’s exploration of the Christian plight in Palestine today offers no Palestinian Christian voice, whatsoever, past or present. Only Marty’s. Why? For one thing it is not really the Palestinian Christians he is trying to defend. Rather, he is venturing to cast aspersions on Muslims (this is again not to condone or deny sectarianism or violence against Middle Eastern Christians by Muslims). That goal is related to his advocacy for Israel. It is also because it is likely that such a voice would conflict with his opinion, which is what Peretz offers about Islam and Arabs — pure, prejudiced, half-baked opinions. And he promises little else. Chait calls his defense of Paretz’s bigotry “sucking up” — that is fitting for no one with any integrity could honestly stand for Martin Peretz’s opinions of “the world of Islam” for anything beyond self-service — after all, one doesn’t bite the hand that feeds.
Peretz famously put his “soft spot” for Berbers in terms of his distaste for Arabs — extending from their plight in Morocco (their “disappearing language” which is a ridiculous proposition in either Morocco or Algeria) to their “rugs and and especially their vases,” which “are so much more subtle than the glimmery ornate of their Arab neighbors.” A Berber might find Peretz’s passion for his language heartening — if Peretz actually put forth some knowledge of it rather than Franco-journalist blibberblabber about the ancient Arab-Berber antagonisms. One part of it demands comment:
The Berbers had been overwhelmed by Arab armies first in the 7th century, then in the 11th and finally after the 15th when Catholic monarchs of Spain threw the Muslims out of Andalucia. Berber comes from the same root as barbarian. But there is nothing barbarian about the Berbers. Their rugs and and especially their vases are so much more subtle than the glimmery ornate of their Arab neighbors. In any case, the Berbers–who consitute some 40 percent of the Moroccan population–are under pressure from the Arabs, constant pressure. Even their 2,500-year-old language is in danger of disappearing.
This whole narrative assigns a passive and broken posture to a people known to themselves and their world as rebellious, diffident and the classic exemplar of “dissidence”. Yes Arab armies “overwhelmed” Berbers on more than one occasion; but it was no mistake that it was a Berber who led Arabs in the conquest of Andalusia and Berbers who pushed north to subdue the depraved Arab fiefdoms in Spain and to bash back to Christian advances there. In the 11th century it was the Almoravids — Berbers — who were overwhelming Arab and Berber armies and kingdoms. And it was among the Berbers in Algeria and the Berbers in the Riff that European advances were set back with vigor and glory. These are not a people subdued, at least not ever for long. What he does, in his eagerness to set up a rapacious Arab advance, is to confuse Berbers for Arabs and Arabs for Berber. He might want to check his rugs; he may have picked up a dull Arab rather than a subtle Berber. Back to what a Berber might think of this: a discerning Berber in a Brooks Brothers sweater would simply call Peretz a racist (and call himself an Amazigh).
The question remains: why can Marty Peretz, in all his bigotry and foolishness, sit at the helm of the so-called flagship publication of the American left? How can he spend his days writing bitterly ignorant blog posts while American liberals look on without raising any fuss? That sounds like it turns on Peretz his own demand that Muslims, regardless of profession, place, age or whether they live in a free state or a dictatorship, protest every bombing or beheading in Pakistan or some other warzone (because they protested cartoons); but it does not. Liberal bloggers do take him on; liberal writers do too. And they do it quite well. They accuse him of racism or of being a neoconservative in the guise of a liberal. The latter charge is of no particular concern here, but one must draw the conclusion that Peretz gets away with his racism because he can.
He can write five times a day on why the President must call terrorist acts acts of “Muslim terrorism” and why Americans should not think that the sliver of Muslims engaged in violent radicalism represent the essential Islamic tradition because he is the editor-in-chief and as such has underlings to look the other way and to defend him if need be. He can make warnings about minor matters in the vein of Sir Anthony Eden crying out about Nasser because a good many are willing to let him rant so long as they can sit in another room, that quirky old man. He has the ear of Al Gore and other powerful liberals. “But how can that be?” the little American Ait-Brownskin asks. “Because the possibilities of conversation are always broader than the inconvinent truth of Martin Peretz’s bigotry,” replies Baba Ait-Brownskin.