Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Washington Monthly contributing writer Joshua Micah Marshall warned that liberal intellectuals, like their conservative counterparts, were overestimating their ideological enemies in the Middle East.
ay you live, as the Chinese curse has it, in interesting times. For the last eighteen months, we’ve all been living in “interesting times”—often frightfully so. Yet for intellectuals there is always a craving that times would be … well, just a little more interesting.
That’s been especially true for the last half century because a shadow has hung over political intellectuals in the English-speaking world, and in some respects throughout the West. It is the shadow of the ideological wars (and the blood-and-iron wars) that grew out of World War I—from communism, to fascism, appeasement, vital-center liberalism, and the rest of it. Even as these struggles congeal into history, their magnitude and seriousness hardly diminish. Understanding fascism, understanding that it could be neither accommodated nor appeased, understanding that Soviet communism was rather like fascism—these were much more than examples of getting things right or of demonstrating intellectual courage and moral seriousness. These insights, decisions, and moments of action came to define those qualities.
Since then, things have never been quite the same. Like doctors who want to treat the most challenging patients or cops who want to take down the worst criminals, it’s only natural for people who think seriously about political and moral issues to seek out the most challenging and morally vexing questions to ponder and confront. Yet, since the Cold War hit its middle period in the late 1950s, nothing has really quite compared.
September 11 changed all that. Al-Qaeda’s war on America and America’s war on terrorism provided just such a vast field for thought and action. In the months after the attacks, writers began identifying the radical Islamist menace with fascism—Islamo-fascism, as the catch phrase had it. The idea that the war on terror should be seen as the latter-day equivalent or extension of the battles against last century’s totalitarianisms has been bandied about in opinion columns and magazine articles for more than a year with varying degrees of seriousness.
But are these analogies really apt? When comparing “Muslim totalitarianism” to fascism, communism, or other totalitarian utopianisms, the most striking thing about radical Islamism, and the Muslim world generally, is not its strength but its weakness. The dissonance between the Islamic world’s historic self-conception and present-day reality is what produces so much of the rage in the Middle East, which grows cancerous when filtered into various extremist ideologies. Unlike fascism or communism, militant Islam isn’t a rising power, but a threat precisely because of its dysfunction and weakness.
Of course, the fact that fanatical Islamist terrorists could get their hands on weapons of mass destruction is a serious caveat. But it does place the issue in a certain context. It is a grave threat, but in a very specific, physical way—a threat to liberal societies but hardly the kind of ideological or political threat that great totalitarianisms posed a half a century ago. Islamist fanatics might destroy a whole city in the West, a catastrophic event. But they’ll never conquer or subvert a country. And this is the heart of the difference. To paraphrase Arthur Schlesinger, Islamism is a danger to the West but hardly a danger in the West—or China, or Latin America, or anywhere else where Islam is not already the dominant religion.
For intellectuals, however, there is always a temptation to take momentous, morally serious questions and make them out to be slightly more momentous and world-historical than they really are. Call it the Orwellian temptation. George Orwell not only epitomized what an intellectual can and should be. He has also become the symbol of the role the best intellectuals played in those critical mid-century years. Along the way, however, the image he cast—or rather his ghost, or his shade—has also become part of the pornography of intellectuals.
Recalling those vivid images of the Twin Towers’ collapse, it is uncomfortable to have to argue that someone is overstating the danger of radical Islam. Nevertheless, to confront the very real threat we face, nothing is more important than seeing that danger for what it is—not through the distorting prism of our grandparents’ world. We have now toppled one of the worst regimes in the region. We have a foothold in the heartland of Islam. We have to decide how to proceed. Do we declare all-out war with much of the Muslim world or craft an approach more narrowly tailored to secure our safety and advance their freedom? Grandiose visions beget grandiose actions, which often end tragically. And grandiosity is a sin of intellectuals, too.