The human rights activist and Canadian parliamentarian Irwin Cotler recently released yet another important document, "The Responsibility to Prevent" petition, detailing how Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran oppresses its own citizens and threatens the world. Yet, like too many smokers ignoring clear cancer warnings, many liberals and intellectuals ignore the Iranian menace. Just this week, as Europe and Canada toughened their sanctions against Iran, filmmaker Oliver Stone denounced American policy toward Iran, suggesting we all should be kinder to Ahmadinejad and his government.
It is one of today's most perplexing mysteries. Although human rights talk has become ubiquitous, "human rights" is too frequently wielded as a political weapon rather than respected as a universal standard. Thus, the UN Human Rights Council becomes the world headquarters for hypocrisy, with dictatorships blithely sitting in judgment on democracies while covering up their own crimes. Even more surprising, beyond power politics, hypocrisy is rampant. Many intellectuals, academic, journalists and human rights activists themselves, who should be paragons of purity, are too frequently enablers of evil, giving cover to international criminals while singling out the US and most especially its close ally Israel for condemnation.
This epidemic of moral idiocy is epitomized by the harsh treatment Israel endures combined with the tremendous leniency afforded Islamism. The failure of so many Western thinkers today to condemn Islamism is as outrageous as was their predecessors' failure to recognize Communism's evil in the 20th century. While Communist appeasers fanatically sought the noble idea of equality, today's Islamist appeasers have been similarly blinded by their zeal for diversity.
The result is a topsy-turvy moral universe. Israel gets no slack internationally and is constantly condemned for sins, both real and imagined. Perverse groups such as Queers against Israeli Apartheid pop up which, considering how free democratic Israel is and how unfree much of the Arab world is, makes as much sense as Doctors against Anti-Smoking Campaigns or Liberals for Islamism. Israel's harsh critics fail to see that if they were less relentless and more credible they could have more impact. Tragically, delegitimizing Israel, criminalizing every Israeli act of self defense, questioning only Israel's right to exist but no other nation's, makes peace harder to achieve. How can a nation that is ostracized have enough faith to compromise, especially when Palestinians spearhead many of these efforts to wish Israel out of existence?
Similarly, the moral free pass Islamism often enjoys encourages many evils threatening world peace today. Iran acts arrogantly, pursuing its nuclear goals, troublemaking worldwide by arming Hizbullah, Hamas and other terrorists, squelching, jailing, raping, torturing its own citizens. Saudi Arabia continues its stealth strategy, lavishly financing much terrorism, spreading its radical, sexist, homophobic, totalitarian, anti-democratic, anti-Western, Islamist-supremacist Wahabbi ideology, while masquerading as a responsible government and Western ally. America's handful of homegrown terrorists feel emboldened, knowing that the president himself hesitates to identify an Islamist massacre at Fort Hood, or Islamist attempts to blow up a jetliner and Times Square as Islamist terrorism.
Paul Berman, a thoughtful writer with impeccable liberal credentials, has spent a lot of time and lost a lot of natural allies since September 11 examining both the evils of Islamism and the cowardice of many modern liberals. His 2003 tour de force Terror and Liberalism was based on his unfashionable instinct to do some homework and read the Islamist tracts available in English in bookstores near his Brooklyn home. The result was a terrifying guided tour of the Islamist ideology rooted in the worst jihadist impulses of traditional Islam, further poisoned by Western fascism and Communism, yet packaged as palatable to too many Muslims in the West and liberals in denial.
In his latest book The Flight of the Intellectuals, Berman uses a case study, exploring the curious tale of Oxford fellow Tariq Ramadan. Ramadan is a clever, manipulative professor who has become an intellectual pop star by disguising his radical Islamism as moderate, even progressive. Berman's book is gripping, both when he explores just how radical, violent, anti-Semitic and destructive Islamist ideology is and when he identifies the many professorial and journalistic patsies who help Ramadan con the world.
Berman dissects Ramadan's loyalty to the jihadist teachings of his grandfather Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood who was a close ally of the murderous Palestinian Hitlerite Haj Amin el Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The Grand Mufti, who also plays the role of villain in another must-read book Palestine Betrayed by Efraim Karsh, was embraced by al-Banna not despite but because he supported Adolf Hitler. A master of "double discourse," which Berman defines as "language intended to deceive Western liberals about the grain of his own thought," Ramadan softpedals this lethal legacy just as he employs a "veil of euphemism" when discussing the destructive Islamist addiction to terrorism.
Berman explains how the world's supposed anti-racists became racist themselves. Radicals, then many liberals, in the 1980s began embracing a worldview that was sociological not ideological, with "a focus on social class instead of a focus on ideas." And, tragically, bullying worked: the intimidation of the novelist Salman Rushdie and the generalized threat of terrorism cowed many intellectuals, keeping them in line.
Paul Berman's book echoes the wake-up call Efraim Karsh conveyed. Too many of us have internalized the delegitimization campaign against Israel and the West, ceding too much ground, forgetting the basics, losing our way. Much of the attack on Israel and the West today is rooted in traditional anti-Semitism crossbred with Islamic fundamentalists' repudiation of enlightenment and liberal ideas. To regain our footing, we should study the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as Karsh does, learn about the Islamist enemy as Berman does. At the same time, we must return to the liberalism of Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill, of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, of Betty Friedan and Martin Luther King, of Golda Meir and David Ben Gurion. These heroes were visionary enough to dream of a better world - and tough enough to take on their enemies when necessary.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and, most recently, The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. He can be reached at email@example.com