Tuesday, June 26, 2007

1938 and all that

Ian Buruma writes a curious piece in the Guardian. Starting with Bernard Kouchner’s advocacy of humanitarian intervention, he raises doubts by erecting a straw man; that opponents of Ba’athism and Islamism are making a mistake because they are drawing parallels with the appeasement of Germany in 1938.

I agree that the use of historical analogies is dangerous and I do not use the term ‘Islamofascism’ myself, yet there are things in his article that worried me. Take this,

But the term "Islamofascism" was not coined for nothing. It invites us to see a big part of the Islamic world as a natural extension of nazism. Saddam, hardly an Islamist, and President Ahmadinejad of Iran are often described as natural successors to Hitler.

Actually, no. The term ‘Islamofascism’ was coined to describe a particular political movement, Islamism, which evinces many of the characteristics of Fascism. Saddam’s Ba’athism was not described as this. It was seen as a form of secular totalitarianism. Writers like Paul Berman have located Islamism and Ba'athism within a broader totalitarian tradition that opposes universal human rights and at times descends into irrationalist death cults. This is a far more sophisticated analysis than just saying, ‘Oh look – the new Hitler’.

Then there is the imprecision. Who are these people who ‘often’ describe Ahmadinejad and Saddam as the ‘natural successors to Hitler’? I rarely come across them. However, my main objection is that he is playing the trick of extension. Even if people use Hitler as an analogy (in my view mistakenly), they do not mean it to be a precise analogy of the military threat posed by Nazi Germany, but a short-hand term for evil.

More alarming is this statement,

If we were less haunted by memories of appeasing the Nazi regime people might not be so concerned about human rights.

If that were the case then at least some good emerged from Munich. We should be concerned with human rights and we always have been. The agitation over the Bulgarian atrocities in 1876 certainly wasn’t the product of 1938! I am delighted if anyone sees human rights as indivisible, universal and a vital interest of all.

He continues,

But the prospect of an Islamised Europe is remote. We are not living a replay of 1938.

He is perfectly correct, though no one claims we are. But should we not be concerned with the Islamist coup in Gaza? Should we not be appalled by the mass slaughter being carried out by the suicide murderers, the bombers, the kidnappers and decapitators? Should we not express our solidarity with those who would defend human rights and build civic institutions that can withstand the onslaught of such organised violence? Apparently not; as long as it doesn’t happen in Europe. Certainly, there is no chance of an Islamist takeover of the West, but that won’t stop them using extreme violence. They positively celebrate arbitrary murder of Westerners and would enthusiastically welcome more. It strikes me that the position he takes is both insular and amoral.

Buruma is writing this as a critic of Neoconservative foreign policy and in opposition to what he refers to as ‘the blind cheering on of a sometimes foolish power embarked on unnecessary wars that cost more lives than they were intended to save’. However, it is perfectly possible to do this without misrepresenting the critics of Islamism. In fact he commits the same offence that he accuses others of committing. He uses a sweeping generalisation to condemn others of using a sweeping generalisation. Instead we should be thankful for those who are prepared to stand for universal human rights. The debate we need to have should be about the practical steps to be taken to uphold them.


Jim Denham said...

Well done, fatso! You've said exactly what I wanted to say, but didn't get round to: Beruma is a misereable prevarocator, isn't he?

Barry Larking said...

Ian Baruma's comments are disturbing because they come in the wake of other events in Holland, Baruma's dual country of origin: The ritual slaughter of film maker Theo Van Gogh and the cowardly renuniciation of politician and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Baruma is exactly the kind of man one might look to for elucidation and confirmation of principal, yet in common with a staggering number of left-liberals he is propelled by these awful events towards appeasement.

One can forgive anyone for wishing to place distance between themselves and the neo-conservatives, the outrages of their foreign policy and war atrocities; but siding with jihadists? Lenin's cruel remark 'useful fools' comes to mind.

Yet there is a problem here. How to defend liberal values without handling influence to people whose one big idea is to abolish them?