W.H. Auden, whose centenary fell late last month, had an extraordinary capacity to summon despair—but in such a way as to simultaneously inspire resistance to fatalism. His most beloved poem is probably September 1, 1939, in which he sees Europe toppling into a chasm of darkness. Reflecting on how this catastrophe for civilization had come about, he wrote:
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analyzed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
“The enlightenment driven away … ” This very strong and bitter line came back to me when I saw the hostile, sneaky reviews that have been dogging the success of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s best seller Infidel,which describes the escape of a young Somali woman from sexual chattelhood to a new life in Holland and then (after the slaying of her friend Theo van Gogh) to a fresh exile in the United States. Two of our leading intellectual commentators, Timothy Garton Ash (in the New York Review of Books) and Ian Buruma, described Hirsi Ali, or those who defend her, as “Enlightenment fundamentalist[s].” In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Buruma made a further borrowing from the language of tyranny and intolerance and described her view as an “absolutist” one.
Now, I know both Garton Ash and Buruma, and I remember what fun they used to have, in the days of the Cold War, with people who proposed a spurious “moral equivalence” between the Soviet and American sides. Much of this critique involved attention to language. Buruma was very mordant about those German leftists who referred to the “consumer terrorism” of the federal republic. You can fill in your own preferred example here; the most egregious were (and, come to think of it, still are) those who would survey the U.S. prison system and compare it to the Gulag.
In her book, Ayaan Hirsi Ali says the following: “I left the world of faith, of genital cutting and forced marriage for the world of reason and sexual emancipation. After making this voyage I know that one of these two worlds is simply better than the other. Not for its gaudy gadgetry, but for its fundamental values.” This is a fairly representative quotation. She has her criticisms of the West, but she prefers it to a society where women are subordinate, censorship is pervasive, and violence is officially preached against unbelievers. As an African victim of, and escapee from, this system, she feels she has acquired the right to say so. What is “fundamentalist” about that?
The Feb. 26 edition of Newsweek takes up where Garton Ash and Buruma leave off and says, in an article by Lorraine Ali, that, “It’s ironic that this would-be ‘infidel’ often sounds as single-minded and reactionary as the zealots she’s worked so hard to oppose.” I would challenge the author to give her definition of irony and also to produce a single statement from Hirsi Ali that would come close to materializing that claim. Accompanying the article is a typically superficial Newsweek Q&A sidebar, which is almost unbelievably headed: “A Bombthrower’s Life.” The subject of this absurd headline is a woman who has been threatened with horrific violence, by Muslims varying from moderate to extreme, ever since she was a little girl. She has more recently had to see a Dutch friend butchered in the street, been told that she is next, and now has to live with bodyguards in Washington, D.C. She has never used or advocated violence. Yet to whom does Newsweek refer as the “Bombthrower”? It’s always the same with these bogus equivalences: They start by pretending loftily to find no difference between aggressor and victim, and they end up by saying that it’s the victim of violence who is “really” inciting it.
Garton Ash and Buruma would once have made short work of any apologist who accused the critics of the U.S.S.R. or the People’s Republic of China of “heating up the Cold War” if they made any points about human rights. Why, then, do they grant an exception to Islam, which is simultaneously the ideology of insurgent violence and of certain inflexible dictatorships? Is it because Islam is a “faith”? Or is it because it is the faith—in Europe at least—of some ethnic minorities? In neither case would any special protection from criticism be justified. Faith makes huge claims, including huge claims to temporal authority over the citizen, which therefore cannot be exempt from scrutiny. And within these “minorities,” there are other minorities who want to escape from the control of their ghetto leaders. (This was also the position of the Dutch Jews in the time of Spinoza.) This is a very complex question, which will require a lot of ingenuity in its handling. The pathetic oversimplification, which describes skepticism, agnosticism, and atheism as equally “fundamentalist,” is of no help here. And notice what happens when Newsweek takes up the cry: The enemy of fundamentalism is defined as someone on the fringe while, before you have had time to notice the sleight of hand, the aggrieved, self-pitying Muslim has become the uncontested tenant of the middle ground.
Let me give another example of linguistic slippage. In ACLU circles, we often refer to ourselves as “First Amendment absolutists.” By this we mean, ironically enough, that we prefer to interpret the words of the Founders, if you insist, literally. The literal meaning in this case seems (to us) to be that Congress cannot inhibit any speech or establish any state religion. This means that we defend all expressions of opinion including those that revolt us, and that we say that nobody can be forced to practice, or forced to foreswear, any faith. I suppose I would say that this is an inflexible principle, or even a dogma, with me. But who dares to say that’s the same as the belief that criticism of religion should be censored or the belief that faith should be imposed? To flirt with this equivalence is to give in to the demagogues and to hear, underneath their yells of triumph, the dismal moan of the trahison des clercs and “the enlightenment driven away.” Perhaps, though, if I said that my principles were a matter of unalterable divine revelation and that I was prepared to use random violence in order to get “respect” for them, I could hope for a more sympathetic audience from some of our intellectuals.