When Cat Stevens was introduced at Jon Stewart’s recent “Rally to Restore Sanity,” the musician also known by his Muslim name Yusuf Islam was greeted with warm applause and howls of approval. It was a strange reception coming from a culturally savvy, mostly twentysomething audience, for while Stevens’s songs are a staple in the 1970s schlock-folk canon, he is best known these days for having supported Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa demanding the execution of novelist Salman Rushdie.
Stevens has tried to whitewash his record over the years, without ever acknowledging or apologizing for his comments, including his response to a British interviewer’s question as to whether he would attend a demonstration to burn an effigy of the writer; Stevens answered glibly that he “hoped that it’d be the real thing.”
“I don’t know why no one in that crowd booed Stevens, or heckled him when he was introduced,” says the British author Nick Cohen, who was in contact with Rushdie after the rally. “Rushdie phoned Stewart, who said he was sorry if it upset him, but it was clear Stewart didn’t really care.”
Presumably what mattered to Stewart and the rally’s cosponsor Stephen Colbert was less Stevens’s willingness to join in the bloodlust of the Islamic Republic of Iran (the fatwa has been reaffirmed by Iran’s current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei) than the fact that Stevens/Islam had been put on a no-fly list by the Bush administration. Never mind that the folk singer had been identified as having donated to a Muslim charity with ties to Hamas; anyone considered unfriendly by Bush is an ally.
Stewart may be just a comedian, as he himself habitually justifies his excesses, but that gives even more reason for concern. It means the rehabilitation of a terrorist sympathizer has now hit the mainstream. What we’re seeing is something akin to the Cold War-era phenomenon of anti-anti-Communism. The anti-anti-Communist left, comprising large sections of the press, academy, and even federal bureaucracies, was simply incapable of understanding that the defense of American civil liberties did not depend on the uncritical defense of the rights of Communists. Call this latest manifestation of liberal illogic anti-anti-Islamism.
While there are a few on the American left, especially in the academy, who maintain that Islamism delivers a valuable critique of Western imperialism, or is a social movement defending the oppressed, this is a minority position. Anti-anti-Islamism is something else: a belief that American opponents of Islamism have cooked up a Muslim scare for their own political benefit, just as anti-Communists once concocted a Red scare.
“The most obvious similarity is that both originate in a denial of the threat,” says Norman Podhoretz, a veteran of both ideological conflicts. “The anti-anti-Communists consistently accused the anti-Communists of exaggerating the Soviet threat from outside and the threat of subversion from within. Anti-anti-Islamists make the same accusations against those who take the Islamist threat seriously. Either we are part of an assault on civil liberties, which we are indifferent to, or we are eager to go to war.”
“The anti-anti-Islamists are extremely parochial,” says Paul Berman, one of liberalism’s few outspoken opponents of Islamism. “These are people who can’t get beyond Republicans and Democrats. It’s about the enemy of my enemy, and ‘my enemy’ for them is the GOP.”
Anti-anti-Islamism is an instrument used to attack Republicans and conservatives, and while no one yet has been tapped to play the role of Joe McCarthy, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s obsession with keeping sharia, or Islamic law, out of the United States may well do more harm than good. The pressing issue in America’s wars is not that American Muslims might want to get married or buried or pass on their estate according to Muslim traditions, but that we have real Islamist enemies like Iran trying to kill our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and supporters of terrorism who live inside our borders and want to shoot us or blow things up.
These are not paranoid fantasies, even as anti-anti-Islamists, like their anti-anti-Communist forebears, pretend otherwise. “The idea is that we have nothing to fear from them except our own overreaction,” says Joshua Muravchik, onetime national chairman of the Young People’s Socialist League and now a fellow at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies. What is true of Iran and terrorism today was true a quarter-century ago. Back then, says Muravchik, “they thought, ‘if only we wouldn’t scare Russians, they wouldn’t behave so badly.’ The anti-anti-Communists believed that the Cold War was as much our fault as theirs.”
It must seem paradoxical to some that it was during this nearly 50-year reign of presumed paranoia, repression, and violations of civil liberties that the left most vocally articulated its reservations about, or outright hostility to, the American order, both at home and abroad. Under the umbrella of the Cold War, the left enjoyed its greatest triumph with the anti-Vietnam war movement, a glory reflected, albeit dimly, in its support of the Latin American guerrillas who stood against Reagan and the ravages of American empire. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the consequent discrediting of Communism, the American left was without a cause and so it looked to Europe.
The continent’s post-World War II concerns were of a different provenance: More than Vietnam, it was Algeria that rallied the left. In its efforts to exorcise all of the ghosts from its colonial history, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, Europe identified the country still ostensibly oppressing its Muslim subjects—Israel. To be sure, the continent had a debt to pay to European Jews, but since they now had their own state and were essentially part of the West, Israel had to be made to understand its crime against the Islamic world. The European idea was, is, confused—is it anti-Israel or pro-Muslim or simply a narcissistic projection of fear and resentment masked as solidarity with the Global South’s tragic other? At any rate, the American left grafted Europe’s cause onto its own experience of anti-anti-Communism. In the two decades that have passed since the Rushdie fatwa and the fall of the Soviet Union, this is the ideological mash-up that has turned the American left anti-anti-Islamist.
“I very much doubt that there would be an international mobilization of writers and activists if something similar to the Rusdhie fatwa happened today,” says Podhoretz. “Would PEN America”—the organization dedicated to protecting freedom of speech and in particular the rights of writers—“mobilize to defend Rushdie?”
In short, no. PEN has chosen instead to defend the rights of Islamists, like the Swiss-born ideologue Tariq Ramadan. Denied a visa by the Bush administration because of his support for a Hamas-affiliated charity, the grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder became a cause célèbre for the American left. Following the Cold War template, the defense of Ramadan was couched in terms of civil liberties: His defenders claimed that Ramadan had been stripped of his right to freedom of speech. Of course, nothing of the sort had happened—no one had thought to censor Ramadan’s widely available books and articles. The U.S. government had withheld a visa from Ramadan that kept him from taking a well-paying teaching position at Notre Dame. When the Obama State Department lifted Ramadan’s visa ban last spring, PEN convened a panel to welcome the writer and “engage” with what are typically described as his valuable contributions to interfaith and inter-civilizational dialogue.
PEN showed just how ambivalent the left is about the free exchange of ideas by declining to invite Paul Berman, who has written extensively, and critically, on Ramadan, most recently in his book The Flight of the Intellectuals. “The defense of Ramadan here in intellectual circles reflects a series of unexamined and in some cases very unattractive assumptions,” says Berman. “Not too many people believe that Islamism represents a progressive force—though some people do believe this, in roundabout ways—but they believe that multiculturalism is to be admired for expressions of authenticity of the self and of culture.”
Indeed, one of the PEN panelists refused to take issue with Ramadan’s squirrelly position that there should be a “moratorium” on Islamic laws that call for the stoning of women. It’s up to Muslims to decide for themselves, Princeton University feminist Joan Wallach Scott told the audience. “What we are seeing is political correctness and multiculturalism turned rancid,” says Berman.
“She’d yell bloody murder if an American equivocated about stoning women,” says Ron Radosh, the prolific historian of American Communism. Scott, as Radosh explains, is a Red-diaper baby who was also head of the academic defense committee for Sami al-Arian, the former University of South Florida professor found guilty of supporting a designated terrorism organization, Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The Cold War lasted longer perhaps than it should have, thanks in part to those anti-anti-Communists—some out of malevolence and others out of intellectual confusion—whose language and ideas corrupted our political landscape. It is perhaps no coincidence that anti-anti-Islamism should appear during a presidential administration that has disdained to designate Islamism as an adversarial ideology. Many on the right, however, are still following the lead of the previous White House in referring to our conflicts as the “long war,” destined to last a generation or more. Perhaps one way to bring our wars to a speedier end is to be clear not only about our enemy but also the efforts of its sometimes unwitting apologists here at home.