FROM THE BACK OF THE BOOK MARCH 14, 2012
By Paul Marshall and Nina Shea
(Oxford University Press, 448 pp., $35)
In spite of its slightly agitated title, this book is mostly a cool and even-tempered human rights report, and its findings go a long way toward explaining one of the mysteries of our time, namely, the ever-expanding success of political movements with overtly Islamic doctrines and radical programs.
Some people may suppose that Islam itself, the ancient religion, mandates theocracy. Seen in this light, the vigor of theocratically tinged political movements right now ought to seem normal to us, and maybe even commendable—a fitting renaissance of cultural authenticity in places around the world that, having left behind the indignities of colonial domination and the awkwardness of the post-colonial era, have entered at last into the post-post-colonial age of the return to self. Movements that carry such labels as “Islamism” or “radical Islam” or “political Islam,” judged in this way, could perfectly well drop their suffixes and adjectives and simply adopt the name of Islam itself—an Islam that has exited the mosque in order to fulfill still more sacred obligations in the public square. But Paul Marshall and Nina Shea take a different view. And in order to confer an august authority upon their contrary estimation, they have padded their human-rights report, or perhaps armored it, with learned commentaries by three Islamic scholars, two of whom are recently deceased but all of whom are distinguished.
The Islamic scholars are the late Abdurrahman Wahid, who at one time was president of Indonesia; the late Nasr Hamid Abu-Zayd, a professor of Arabic literature at Cairo University until he fled into exile; and Abdullah Saeed, in exile from the Maldives, who is currently a professor at the University of Melbourne. All three of these eminences argue stoutly and knowledgeably that the radical Islamic political movements of our time represent, in Wahid’s phrase, an “extreme and perverse ideology.” The ideology ought not to be confused with other, more tolerant and traditional currents of thought within Islam, more compatible with modern liberal ideas—such as the peaceable Sufism endorsed by Wahid, together with sundry humanist currents that descend from Islam’s medieval Golden Age. The three scholars display a confident erudition in laying out their view. And yet the scholarly self-confidence only raises a further question: why have liberal-minded and scripturally sophisticated thinkers such as Wahid, Abu-Zayd, and Saeed failed in so many parts of the world to out-argue the extreme and perverse ideologues? Why haven’t the liberals and the moderates crushed the radicals? This is the mystery that Marshall and Shea address.
Marshall and Shea have been toiling for many years at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, and the dossier they have assembled on religion and human rights shows that, in the Muslim world and beyond, the proponents of a radical and politicized Islam have set one great goal for themselves, which is not at all dreamy or utopian. The goal is to narrow the limits of what everybody else is allowed to think. The way to achieve this goal is to invoke sacred taboos against apostasy and blasphemy, together with a series of other taboos—“insulting Islam,” “corruption on earth,” “fighting against God,” “witchcraft,” and so forth.
The radical ideologues deem apostasy and blasphemy to be capital offenses punishable, according to the code of sharia, by death. The radicals do not expect everyone else to share an enthusiasm for corporal punishments, but they do want the rest of the world to acknowledge that apostasy and sacrilege against Islam are abominations, which ought to arouse indignation in the heart of every decent and fair-minded person. As it happens, everyone else does not assent to this crucial point. The scholarly Muslim contributors to Marshall and Shea’s book explain that, from their own non-radical standpoint, sharia ought to be regarded as a flexible call for a thoughtfully pious morality, and not as a rigid code of temporal punishments. Nor do blasphemy and apostasy send the non-radical scholars reeling in horror. Nor is there any consensus on how to define blasphemy and apostasy. There is, instead, a debate. But the debate has gone the way it has gone. The liberal counter-arguments have gotten trampled underfoot. The limits of permissible thought have shrunk. And the radicals’ success is owed in significant measure to a large and observable factor that Marshall and Shea are at pains to document. It is systematic intimidation.
THE RADICALS, WHO are perfectly happy to argue in a conventional manner, are equally happy, should argument fail, to enforce. In countries where the radicals are in power, enforcement falls into the hands of the uniformed services—a visible reality in countries as diverse as the ultra-revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran and the ultraconservative Wahhabi monarchy of the Arabian peninsula. But police enforcement of the apostasy and blasphemy taboos used to figure in the Egypt of Hosni Mubarak as well, if only because Mubarak’s Free Officers’ movement, for all its boasting about secular modernity and democratic aspirations, managed to strike up a working alliance with the semi-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood. In still other countries, non-governmental militias—for example, the Boko Haram in Nigeria—take enforcement into their own hands. There are also the mobs, as can be seen in various places from West Africa to Pakistan. And there are vigilantes.
Marshall and Shea present a summary of these violent campaigns and their consequences in some twenty countries around the world, chosen from among the forty-plus countries whose populations are principally Muslim. Indonesia, the most populous, remains a largely tolerant place—as does the not-so-populous Mali, just to show that Indonesia’s civic virtues are more than a local aberration (though just now, as I write, Mali has fallen into a civil war, along ethnic instead of religious lines). A religious oppression weighs more heavily in other places, such as Abdullah Saeed’s unhappy Maldives in the Indian Ocean, a miserable sea-bound spot for anyone hoping to dip a toe into the free-floating waters of the untrammeled intellect.
The radicals have focused their campaign against apostasy and blasphemy on several categories of people, which Marshall and Shea have taken the trouble to identify and to describe, beginning with religious minorities. No one will be surprised to learn that, for Christians in different parts of the Muslim world, today is the age of the Roman lions, and Christians have been fleeing en masse. Marshall and Shea remind us that in Sudan an Islamist government sparked a civil war partly by trying to impose a ferocious version of sharia on Christians and other non-Muslims in the south, and by the time the war ended (though the violence seems to be starting up again) more than two million people of various confessions had been killed.
In Somalia, Islamists have looked on the entire Christian population as Muslim apostates, and this has led to a call by one of the Islamist groups for a general extermination. Christians have suffered persecution even in places where, formally speaking, the government is secular and civic rights are supposed to apply. There is the case in Algeria, where, in response to an Islamist outcry ostensibly against foreign Christian missionaries, the government during the last few years has taken to exerting pressure on a variety of Christian activities, sometimes with the implication that Algeria’s Christians are agents of foreign forces. In Egypt, Christians appear to be fleeing, perhaps in large numbers.
The most consistent pressure has fallen upon heterodox Muslim groups such as the Ismailis, the Alevis, and the Ahmadis (who suffer persecution even in Indonesia), not to mention offshoots of Islam such as the hugely oppressed Baha’i. Then again, the militants of radical Islam tend to hang the label of blasphemy around the necks of whichever mainstream Muslim denomination happens to be locally in the minority—the Sunnis in Shiite Iran, the Shia in Sunni Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Surely everyone has noticed that, for many years now, scarcely a week goes by without a report of yet another massacre of random Shia, sometimes in mosques, sometimes at funerals—a vast development in Iraq, but also in Pakistan and recently in Afghanistan. Entire ethnic groups are sometimes deemed to have fallen afoul of the taboos. The persecution of Christians in Algeria singles out the Algerian Berbers, known as Kabyles, some of whom are Christians, though most are Muslims. Islamists in Sudan have declared the Nubas apostate, which puts half a million people at risk—though a full-scale massacre has failed to occur.
Marshall and Shea punctiliously demonstrate that persecution by the radicals focuses everywhere on the Islamic humanists, liberal reformers, and free-thinkers. Some very distinguished Islamic reformists have been killed—for instance, the Sudanese intellectual Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, who was executed by Sudan’s Islamist government on a charge of blasphemy in 1985. I mention Taha because one of his disciples, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im of Emory University School of Law, published an incisive book in 2008 called Islam and the Secular State, which means that any readers who have been following our own American debate over Islamic theology and its uses and distortions may recognize Taha’s name and may even suspect, on the basis of his disciple’s reasoning, that Taha offered exceptionally powerful arguments for a tolerant and modern Islam. But Marshall and Shea have filled their pages with a great many additional names and case summaries, such that you could easily conclude that in our time an entire generation of progressive Muslim intellectuals has come under attack. If you have been following the news you may have noticed that a new generation, too, has come under attack—as demonstrated by the case of a Saudi columnist named Hamza Kashgari, age twenty-three, who fled from Saudi Arabia to Malaysia after having posted three Twitter messages having to do with Muhammad, and has now been deported back to Saudi Arabia to face charges of blasphemy, apostasy, and atheism: capital offenses.
Marshall and Shea feel that, having taken note of the tolerant exceptions, they are in a position to generalize from their country-by-country analysis. They write, “Our survey shows that in Muslim-majority countries and areas, restrictions on freedom of religion and expression, based on prohibitions of blasphemy, apostasy, and ‘insulting Islam,’ are pervasive, thwart freedom, and cause suffering to millions of people.” The suffering is sometimes inflicted subtly or indirectly, which makes it no less grievous. The visible persecution falls upon the designated heretics and out-groups, but the ordinary members of the privileged majority population also learn their lesson. Each lonely individual, in the privacy of his own ruminations, has to reflect on the possible consequences of allowing a wayward thought to wander down a forbidden alley. Islam itself ends up a victim. An-Na’im observes that if you do not have the possibility of abandoning your religion, you do not enjoy the possibility of freely embracing it, either.
Who will stand up, under these circumstances, to block the militants in their forward march? Absolute majorities of people in one country after another may well look upon the champions of a totalitarian Islam with disdain and horror. But the majorities have every reason to keep their feelings to themselves; and people who keep their feelings to themselves tend not to know, after a while, what their feelings are. Anyway, majorities sometimes do side with the radicals, as we have been learning, which leaves the whole responsibility for putting up a resistance in the hands of some very lonely minorities.
THE RADICALS SOMETIMES keep an eye on other parts of the world, and this, their global orientation, adds up to something new. The conventional leaders of Islam in times of yore did not generally regard departures from sharia in non-Muslim regions of the world as grounds for concern, and, for that matter, neither did the radicals— until recently. Islamism in its modern and recognizable form got started in the 1920s and 1930s with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and a scattering of fraternal movements in other countries—and the Islamists of those decades dreamed mostly of resurrecting the ancient sacred caliphate in its historic zones. The notion of not only resurrecting the caliphate but expanding it outward to the rest of the world was mostly a millenarian afterthought, mentionable, but not, as it were, actionable.
The more expansive rethinking emerged only in the course of the Rushdie affair in 1988–1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini and other leaders judged that corporal retribution for the satanic act of writing and publishing The Satanic Verses should be meted out even to Rushdie’s publishing houses, translators, and booksellers in all parts of the world, unto California, which experienced an arson, and Japan, which saw a murder. The Age of the Rushdie Affair, having gotten under way, has not yet come to an end. Marshall and Shea summarize some of its continuing manifestations: the murder of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker, on an Amsterdam street in 2004; the response to a dozen Danish cartoons in 2005 lampooning Islamic terrorism, which generated mass demonstrations, riots, and arson attacks and, all in all, 241 deaths around the world; the repeated attempts to murder the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who drew the most pointed and memorable of the cartoons (the one depicting Muhammad with a bomb tucked into his turban), with would-be assassins arrested as far away as Chicago; the response to Benedict XVI’s lecture at Regensburg, Germany, in 2006, which led to the murder of Christians in Iraq and Somalia and to bombings and shootings aimed at Christian centers in Gaza and the Palestinian West Bank.
More: the response to a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad by the Swedish art theorist and artist Lars Vilks, which led to a conspiracy to assassinate him that included “Jihad Jane” in the United States; the response to a film by the Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders (one of the very few people involved in these affairs, as Marshall and Shea point out, who actually does express a thorough hostility to Islam), which led to the killing of a Dutch soldier in Afghanistan; the response to a romance novel by the American writer Sherry Jones about one of Muhammad’s wives, which led to the arrest of three men in England for attempted arson against the publisher (after Random House in the United States had already backed off publishing the book); the conviction of a man for threatening the creators of the South Park comedy show, though South Park decided not to go ahead with its depiction of Muhammad in a bear suit; the beating in Oslo of Kadra Noor, a Norwegian-Somali feminist. And so forth—with my examples culled only from incidents in which people have been killed or injured, or in which suspected terrorists and vigilantes have been arrested.
Incidents in which artistic or intellectual presentations have been cancelled without any accompanying violence or arrests have become fairly common: the sandblasting by the Dutch police of a mural in Amsterdam protesting the murder of van Gogh; the removal of artwork from London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 2006; the cancellation of a display at the Tate Gallery; the cancellation in Geneva in 1993 of a production of Voltaire’s play Fanaticism: or Mahomet the Prophet (followed, a dozen years later, by a minor riot when Voltaire’s play did receive a French production); the quiet removal of artworks from display by the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2010 (though I wonder how Marshall and Shea would judge the Met’s ambitious new wing of Islamic art); the removal in 2009 of the Danish cartoons from a scholarly Yale University Press book about the Danish cartoons; the cancellation in 2009 of a German mystery novel about Muslim honor killings; the flight underground of a threatened cartoonist, Molly Norris, of the Seattle Weekly; the decision by eight hundred newspapers in the United States not to run a syndicated cartoon by Wiley Miller. And so on.
The most telling intimidation has naturally fallen upon artists and public figures in Europe who are themselves Muslims or come from Muslim backgrounds—the Anglican bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, who converted to Christianity; the brave and morally precise Italian-Egyptian journalist Magdi Allam, who also converted (at the hands of the pope, no less, such that his middle name is now Cristiano); the writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Holland, until she left Holland; Necla Kelek, a German feminist from Turkey; Ekin Deligöz, a German Green politician from Turkey; Souad Sbai, the head of Italy’s Association of Moroccan Women, and too many others to list. Most of these people are émigrés who, having fled to Europe from their old homes, have now found themselves obliged to flee anew and sometimes to rely on pseudonyms and the police. Marshall and Shea cite North American instances: a campaign of threats against Tarek Fatah and his colleagues of the reformist Muslim Canadian Congress; threats against the Canadian reformist writer Irshad Manji; the beating in Canada of a Pakistani-born journalist, Jawad Faizi; and the necessity even in the United States to adopt a pseudonym and behave circumspectly for the profoundly learned Pakistani-born scholar Ibn Warraq, the author of Virgins? What Virgins? (you see his problem right there) and the masochistically subtitled book Why the West Is Best: A Muslim Apostate’s Defense of Liberal Democracy.
I could go on, but the point is made. There are far too many of these incidents and unhappy life-stories to dismiss the lot of them as a marginal phenomenon.
THE ANTI-BLASPHEMY and anti-apostasy campaign has meanwhile advanced on still another terrain, which is that of law. Some fifty-seven countries around the world adhere to the lately renamed Organization of Islamic Cooperation, or OIC, founded by Saudi Arabia in 1969. Not every government in the OIC tilts in radical directions, but the ideologues do seem to enjoy an outsized influence. In 1990, the OIC proposed a thorough subversion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The new statement was called the “Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam,” and it stipulated: “Everyone shall have the right to express his opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’a.” And the OIC launched a campaign to persuade the United Nations to integrate a respect for sharia into international law.
It is worth asking why the OIC would bother doing such a thing, and indeed why the larger radical movement would have shifted its already grandiose focus from resurrecting an ancient empire to evangelizing the planet. But this is not so mysterious, if you take the trouble to read some of the classics of the Islamist literature. The “extreme and perverse” ideology is not, as many people tend to assume, merely a call to return to the pieties and amputations of grandfather’s day. The ideology is modern, and, as with many another totalitarian mania of the last century, its perversity hangs on a paranoia. The doctrine postulates a conspiracy theory, according to which Crusaders and Zionists have been plotting to annihilate Islam for many hundreds of years—in the case of the Zionists, ever since the Medina controversies of the seventh century. Not too many foreign ministries around the world, or even among the constituent governments of the OIC, are likely to uphold the Crusader-Zionist delusion in its full exotic glory. But like a spilled drink, the exotic theory is capable of blending into the conventional fabric of modern fears all over the world about Western power and its arrogant habits and intentions.
Marshall and Shea cite the presentations of a United Nations official with the magnificent title “Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance”—who, from 2003 to 2008, was a jurist from Senegal named Doudou Diène. The Special Rapporteur felt that people in the Western countries who expressed anxieties about Islamic extremism were mounting a kind of racist assault on Muslims. He worried about “Islamophobia”—an irrational fear or bigotry, bolstered by theoretical and ideological justifications. From a viewpoint such as his, even a set of innocent-or-mischievous cartoons in a little-known newspaper in a tiny European country like Denmark could appear to be a massively powerful Islamophobic weapon, akin to an imperialist intervention against the world’s Muslims—no, not just akin, an actual weapon, designed to wreak damage. In this fashion, medieval paranoias about Crusaders and seventh-century Jews could be presented as sophisticated mid-twentieth-century-style exposés of remnant or resurgent colonialist ambitions. And the OIC discovered that a suitably rephrased anti-blasphemy campaign could perfectly well attract support from well outside the circle of Muslim delegations.
The OIC has come up with one and another proposal, submitted to the United Nations, to condemn defamation of Islam or “Islamophobia,” and the proposals have led sometimes to non-binding resolutions either from the UN’s various human-rights committees or even from the UN General Assembly. Marshall and Shea tell us that, after a while, some of the Western democracies bridled at these resolutions, and Western reactions led to clever reformulations on the part of the OIC, adopting the more catholic approach, so to speak, of condemning the defamation of religions in general, as if without any parochial concern for Islam. Or the resolutions condemned “hate speech” and “contempt” of religion. But the underlying intention remained.
In Marshall and Shea’s interpretation, the Obama administration, instead of smiting these resolutions down, has sometimes helped the campaign along its way. In 2009, the administration, pursuing its new policy of “engagement,” agreed to co-sponsor with Egypt a resolution in the Human Rights Council condemning “negative racial and religious stereotyping” and “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”—which, in Marshall and Shea’s view, lent still more legitimacy to the larger campaign. Worse: the Obama administration, in Marshall and Shea’s interpretation, may even have hinted at an American willingness to back away from a full-throated defense of free speech.
I WONDER IF Marshall and Shea, in commenting on these matters, haven’t fallen into the Potomac swampland of American politics. The administration of Bush the Younger followed a policy at the United Nations of stomping its feet and exiting the room whenever its ideological foes from other parts of the world came up with preposterous or offensive proposals, and the door-slamming effectively left the OIC unopposed, and the OIC ran amok. This was worrisome. The committee resolutions, piling up, were eventually bound to seep into political and legal understandings around the world. But the Obama administration succeeded in altering the language in the 2009 version of the ever-changing resolution, and the alterations cleverly blunted the campaign—or so it can be argued.
Marshall and Shea themselves sulkily acknowledge that, early in 2011, the anti-defamation-and-apostasy campaign suffered an open setback at the United Nations, in favor of a still newer resolution offering a proper and admirable defense of free speech—which might suggest that “engagement” had scored, in fact, a triumph. Success, at last—if only on East 43rd Street! Procedural cleverness is good. Then again, no one should imagine that clever politicking at the U.N. is going to bring these debates to an end. Just a few months ago, in November 2011, an Iranian project, expressed in “the Tehran Declaration and Programme of Action,” from 2007, attracted yet another group of supporters—this time in favor of a resolution protecting “cultural diversity.” But the rhetoric of “cultural diversity,” like the previous rhetoric about hate speech or insults to religions-in-general, merely offers one more way to demand the legal suppression of anything deemed inconvenient by the radical ideology.
Marshall and Shea argue pretty strenuously that, after so many years, the project of legally silencing critics around the world has seeped into the legal assumptions even of countries that ought to know better. They mention the courtroom problems in France of people such as Brigitte Bardot, who keeps getting fined by French judges on hate-speech grounds for having published her condemnations of Islamic animal-slaughter practices and her worries about “the Islamization of France.” Bardot offers an ambiguous example, though. France cultivates its own notions of civility and public space, which, from an American perspective, can seem over-regimented—though the French regimentation, which obliges right-wing enthusiasts such as Bardot to pipe down, also prohibits Muslim schoolgirls and everyone else from wearing ostentatious religious symbols in the public schools, and the one hand and the other hand are duly shackled together, to the general satisfaction of the public, including the French Muslim public.
Some other courtroom episodes from the last few years, as described by Marshall and Shea, seem to me more disturbing—ranging from a lawsuit against France’s best-known novelist, the morosely naughty Michel Houellebecq, who was obliged to defend in court his right in 2002 to declare Islam “the stupidest religion of all” (paraphrasing Voltaire on Christianity, by the way), to the troubles of one of France’s best-known philosophers, the soberly upright Alain Finkielkraut, who has likewise had to contend with legal complaints, not to mention personal threats. It is reassuring to learn from Marshall and Shea that Houellebecq won his case, and that none other than Nicolas Sarkozy rose to Finkielkraut’s defense. French republicanism will never regiment the glories of French culture. And it is reassuring to learn that, in Germany, a production of Mozart’s Idomeneo, which depicted the severed heads of various religious figures, not excluding the founder of Islam, ultimately did go on stage, after a moment’s hesitation, amid a nervous deployment of police guards and electric scanners; and reassuring to learn that, in the United States, a small publisher stepped forward to publish Sherry Jones’s novel.
Marshall and Shea observe, however, that victory in cases like these can cost a pretty penny, and the costs are likely to dampen anyone’s ardor for self-expression—a point they make in regard to the writer Mark Steyn, who had to fend off complainants in a Canadian court at his own expense, and again in regard to an Australian church minister named Daniel Scot, whose legal expenditures added up, in his own estimation, to hundreds of thousands of dollars. There is always the possibility, too, that even the most decisive of legal victories will leave a door open for extra-legal defeats. Marshall and Shea cite a lawsuit in 2007 against the editor of the French left-wing satirical newspaper Charlie-Hebdo, who was accused of having broken the law by reprinting the Danish cartoons, and was duly acquitted. A few months ago, after Charlie-Hebdo announced a forthcoming issue satirizing the Islamist movement, the newspaper’s offices in Paris were demolished in a fire-bombing.
The legal issues and even some of the violence seem to me, in any case, secondary to a still larger phenomenon, which is a vogue all over the world for an entirely voluntary self-censorship—a custom of downplaying certain topics that are deemed sensitive, or declining even to utter certain controversial words, while pretending to be frank and forthright. By now everyone has noticed the fog of euphemism that has crept over the word “moderate” when applied to Islamist movements and leaders. A “moderate” is someone such as Rachid Ghannouchi, the Islamist leader in Tunisia, basking for the last few months in his October 2011 triumph at the polls—who has spoken at length over the years about “Jewish Masonic Zionist atheistic gangs” and the “Talmudic satanic project” to create a “new Jewish world order on the ruins of the American Western world order,” about the mothers of suicide terrorists as “a new model of woman,” and more generally about “the extinction of Israel” or, more recently and hygienically, “the germ of Israel,” which he has come to think will, like polio, shortly be eradicated. Ghannouchi is one of the leading champions around the world of Hamas—a leading champion because Hamas itself has never been well-endowed with intellectuals, but Ghannouchi is an educated philosopher. Then again, Ghannouchi promises to respect democratic norms within Tunisia itself. Measured by Islamist standards, he is indeed a “moderate.” No one but satanic Masonic Zionist germs need fear extermination, if Rachid Ghannouchi has his way. At least, not for the moment! Yet how can it be that Islamist standards have ended up accepted in the mainstream Western press, such that, for months now, barely a day goes by when we do not read encomia to the “moderation” of Rachid Ghannouchi?
MARSHALL AND SHEA devote very little attention to superstitions about the Jews, and this makes sense from a narrow point of view. A human-rights report should chronicle acts of persecution, and during the last several decades nearly the entire Jewish population of the Muslim world successfully fled to Israel and other places—which means that, unlike the oppressed Ismailis, Ahmadis, Baha’is, Muslim liberals, Christians, and other unhappy minorities, the Jews of the Middle East are right now capable of defending themselves con fuoco, even con troppo fuoco. The only substantial exception can be found in Iran, where a rump population of the ancient Jewish community has stubbornly remained in place. But Marshall and Shea report that Iran’s Jews, having declined to flee, also decline to raise even the tiniest of wan complaints about their circumstances, which may suggest a high degree of intimidation. There are twenty thousand of these people.
Seen from an angle broader than human rights persecution, though, the belief in supernatural Jewish evil might seem worthy of commentary. It is often supposed that, when the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt first acquired a mass popularity, beginning in 1936, its appeal rested on a nationalist loathing for the British. But the campaign that in fact attracted hundreds of thousands of Egyptians into the Brotherhood ranks was anti-Zionist, in solidarity with the Arab Uprising in Palestine—with Zionism defined in the more-than-human manner that could be understood by studying The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, just then taking their prominent place in the Islamist literature. That was ages ago. But does anyone really suppose that supernaturalist anti-Zionism has somehow receded more recently to the margins of the Islamist imagination?
I urge any of my more optimistic readers to look up the various YouTube videos of a sermon delivered by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi in Tahrir Square, Cairo, in February 2011, to an enormous crowd. His sermon was one of the turning points of the Arab Spring—the moment at which the Muslim Brotherhood finally decided to ripple its muscles in front of a broad public. Qaradawi is the most widely known and admired Sunni cleric in the world, owing to his al-Jazeera televangelism, even apart from his status as the Brotherhood’s leading theologian. He devoted most of his sermon to celebrating the early moments of the new revolution. He urged the Egyptian people onward. But the sermon also rose to a climax that turned away from Egypt altogether in order to touch on Palestinian issues. He prayed to God to be allowed “to witness the conquest of the Al-Aqsa mosque,” in Jerusalem—though, in another translation, “conquest” is rendered as “opening.” His meaning was clear, either way.
Qaradawi is famous for having bestowed clerical blessings upon suicide terror and the policies of Hamas. He resembles Rachid Ghannouchi in this respect, his fellow member of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, except that Qaradawi is the senior figure. The jaunty title “mufti of martyrdom operations” is something Qaradawi assigned to himself, in a fit of televised ghoulish humor. The prayed-for “conquest” or “opening” of the Al-Aqsa mosque at the climax of his sermon at Tahrir Square could only mean the triumph of Hamas’s jihad. There are people who claim not to know what this would involve. But Qaradawi himself has offered a few hints. Hamas’s jihad means the completion of what Hitler, as the agent of God, long ago began—another element of Qaradawi’s thinking that, together with his overall condemnation of the peace process, he has announced to his gigantic television audience.
But what strikes me about Qaradawi’s Cairo sermon was the crowd’s reaction to those final, climactic invocations. The reaction was oceanic. On some of those videos a giant wave appears to lift up the vast city square. Here was the revolutionary emotion—not for every last Egyptian, to be sure, but evidently for a great many people who have just now voted for one or another of the Islamist parties. Here was the revolutionary goal, openly announced. It was not merely the overthrow of Pharaoh. It was the liberation of Jerusalem. The crowd at Tahrir Square erupted in emotion because huge numbers of people look upon Qaradawi’s goal as a transcendental aspiration—the jihad that is spiritual and material at the same time.
And yet Qaradawi, too, is typically described as a “moderate.” Even his Tahrir Square sermon has been described and applauded more than once as “moderate,” without the slightest reference to its concluding section. How can this be, almost seventy years after the defeat of Nazism—the presentation of such a person as a “moderate,” amid the discreet overlooking of his rantings on Jewish themes? The omissions tend to be systematic, too. The scholar Samuel Helfont has commented on this magazine’s website about a recent American scholarly biography of Qaradawi that likewise manages to overlook or underestimate the rantings. A similar distortion can be seen in historical scholarship on Qaradawi’s predecessor as grand theoretician, Sayyid Qutb. The most recent of the scholarly Qutb biographies duly takes up his theories about satanic Jewish conspiracies, but somehow the conspiracy theories merit only a handful of pages, which will scarcely seem appropriate to anyone who has actually read Qutb’s enormous Koranic commentaries, not to mention his pamphlet on the Jews. Martin Kramer has made the same point in regard to an Oxford University Press book about Ghannouchi. Silenced is the name of Marshall and Shea’s human-rights report, and Self-Silenced ought to be the title of a round-up analysis of some recent Western academic scholarship.
THE MATTER OF self-censorship also rises to more-than-academic heights. There is the sensitive question of how the most powerful of Western governments have come to define what can be discussed, and what should be deemed unsayable. Marshall and Shea report:
In 2008, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the State Department instructed their employees to avoid the words “salafi,” “wahhabist,” “caliphate,” and “jihadist” as offensive to Muslims when used by non-Muslims. On the advice of unidentified Muslim consultants, the word “liberty” was also dropped in favor of “progress.” That year, the U.K. Home Secretary also dropped the term “Islamic terrorism” and instead instituted “anti-Islamic activity.” In 2009, the U.S. Homeland Security secretary dropped “Islamic terrorism” in favor of “man-made disasters.” The May 2010 U.S. National Security Strategy document, which in previous years had said, “The struggle against militant Islamic radicalism is the great ideological conflict of the early years of the 21st century,” dropped any reference to “Islamic extremism.”
Old news? Marshall and Shea’s book makes the old news seem newly worrisome. Their book paints a worldwide landscape of censorship and self-censorship, and the scenes of violence and intimidation suggest that a fondness for bureaucratic Orwellianisms in Washington or London may reflect something more than diplomatic discretion. The whipped-up hysterias over blasphemy and Islamophobia have certainly turned out to serve a military purpose. The protests against the inadvertent burning of Korans in Afghanistan in February , after the publication of Marshall and Shea’s book, have led to twenty-nine Afghani deaths and the killing of six American soldiers, and have led to something more as well: a visible tremor among the NATO allies in Afghanistan, a hint of military defeat.
Marshall and Shea’s book is not always easy to read, mostly because the topic is painful, but also because the presentation is repetitive and sometimes a little chaotic. The index is oddly truncated, which makes for difficulties if you want to look up any number of significant cases and their summaries—such as the story of Mozart’s opera in Germany, recounted in the text and absent from the index. I do not doubt that rival human-rights groups could hurl objections at various details in Marshall and Shea’s report, given the reality that human-rights documentation is not the science that its practitioners pretend it to be. The Obama administration has reason to grumble about going unappreciated by Marshall and Shea on various matters, and the veterans of the Bush administration have equal reason to mumble their appreciation for going undiscussed. An uncontroversial report on the human-rights challenge of our present moment will never be written.
But everyone ought to be able to agree that, in composing their book, Marshall and Shea have accomplished something large and admirable. They have painted a portrait to accompany the series of Arab Human Development Reports from the U.N., except they have done so on a global scale, which no one has attempted before, at least not in a convincing or thorough way.
Their portrait is dismaying, and yet it does stimulate a few thoughts. The human rights movement has always looked into repressive governments. Anyone who studies Marshall and Shea’s report will recognize that political and religious movements, even without government power, can likewise prove to be massively repressive; and what is massively repressive ought to be examined and exposed. The report also raises a couple of questions that are hard to quantify but ought still to trouble us—questions not just about the right to think freely, but about the habit of actually doing so, which is easily lost; and not just about rights and habits in faraway places, but at home, too, in the land of the free. Anyway, if you have been keeping up with the election results from North Africa and the civil wars in different parts of the Arab world, you may have already intuited that the worldwide campaign to suppress criticism of the Islamist movement, as documented by Marshall and Shea, is about to make a gigantic and intimidating lurch forward, beyond anything we have so far seen.
Paul Berman is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article appeared in the April 5, 2012 issue of the magazine.