Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Leveraging Experience

Ta-Nehisi Coates has an excellent post up on Pankaj Mishra's essay about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Tariq Ramadan and Paul Berman. Mishra recalled the following anecdote from Arendt:
During the Vietnam War, Hannah Arendt noted that members of the Democratic Administration had frequent recourse to phrases like "monolithic communism," and "second Munich," and deduced from this an inability "to confront reality on its own terms because they had always some parallels in mind that 'helped' them to understand those terms."

Coates adds:
When I was college, it was common for student activists to call slavery "the Black Holocaust" or "The Real Holocaust." There's an argument to be made about America, and the stories we tell ourselves when we see ourselves as heroic, and when we don't. But most of these activists--some of them anti-Semites--knew very little about Jews, Europe, Nazism nor, frankly, slavery. And they didn't much care. They were not interested in specifics. They were interested in leveraging the moral power of other people's experience, in order to bolster the moral power of their own. It was narcissism, laziness, and basic lack of respect--not simply for the Jewish experience--but for the specifics of the African-American experience.

I've stated my distaste for the appropriation of "Holocaust" to other contexts in general. And I think that Coates is right both that such a move is both demonstrative of a lack of imagination, and represents an astoundingly disrespectful attempt to leverage one group's experience on behalf of another (often without that group's consent, and often -- as Jews well know -- against the group itself).


N. Friedman said...

Having read the books in issue in Misra's article, I do not think she quite understood either Hirsi Ali's or Berman's book.

The critical consideration for understanding Berman's book concerns the support given, not so very long ago, by Western intellectuals for Salmon Rushdie, after the fatwa issued against his life by Ayatollah Khomeini - and, in fact, a number of people associated with Rushdie were killed by those following the issuance of that legal decree.

Berman notes that, nowadays, there is intellectual support by elite Western intellectuals for Islamist Medievalists such as Ramadan - whom Berman shows not really to be what Misra claims but, instead, an Islamist Medievalist who employs Western language to express Medieval ideas in order to advance Medievalism, not the modernizing of Islam or the integration of Europe's Muslims.

Moreover, and to anyone who reads European newspapers knows, Ramadan is not a minor figure in Europe. He is an important figure, with a substantial following, not only among Western intellectuals - who appear not to have much read him (and, perhaps, Mishra might be one such non-reader or, at least, not all that careful) - but among the masses of Europe's Muslims, among whom he is certainly a revered figure (even if he is not read). This minor figure, on Mishra's telling, had a major debate with the President of France, which might tell you just how "minor" a figure Ramadan is.

In fact, unlike Mishra, Berman takes Ramadan seriously. Berman presents Ramadan's ideas carefully, with attention to detail. Berman also presents Ramadan's family history carefully. And - this history is rather important to any serious student of Islamism.

Berman examines carefully certain of the European influences that have impacted on Islamism, focusing on the recently discovered treasure of documents uncovered by Prof. Jeffrey Herf that relate to the welding of fascistic ideas into the Islamist movement - something which, though Mishra chooses to ignore it - that was the work in part of the Grand Mufti, Amin al-Husseini, leader of the Palestinian Arabs who was very close with Ramadan's revered grandfather, Hasan al-Banna, with al-Banna, according to his writings, accepting such ideas.

Mishra also misstate's Ms. Hirsi Ali's politics. Hirsi Ali is a liberal - a Social Democrat. So, to begin with, the effort to cast her otherwise is part of the effort by some writers to paint as black any critics of Islamism.

The reason that someone might read Berman's book, apart from the above controversy, is because it summarizes the findings of Jeffrey Herf. These findings are so astounding and important - and so absent in Mishra's presentation, other than to note that the Grand Mufti, Amin al-Husseini forged an alliance with the Nazis that, on Mishra's assertion, was not different than a tactical alliance (i.e. the enemy of my enemy is my friend) - as to make the book worth the time to read.

In fact, Herf's discoveries show that the alliance was ideological, not tactical. And, al-Banna, founder of the Brotherhood, was at one with that ideology, which the Mufti and Rashid Ali el Khilani helped forge in Germany.

Lastly, Mishra makes it seem that al-Husseini was an unimportant figure. However, as head of the Arab High Committee and leader of the Palestinian Arabs before and during the Palestine war of 1947-1948, what is stated is simply untrue.

So, Mishra has written an interesting article. However, it is not a fair presentation of Berman's writings and it is not a remotely rendition of anything much.

N. Friedman said...

I left out a sentence at the end of the paragraph that begin: "Berman notes that, nowadays, there is intellectual support by elite Western intellectuals for Islamist Medievalists such as Ramadan ..."

I needed to add that, unlike the treatment of Ramadan, Ms. Hirsi Ali is not supported, whether or not there is agreement with her ideas, even though she has been forced to live, like Salmon Rushdie once lived, with 24 hour body guards due to the threats to kill her that come from Islamists. Which is to say, Berman sees Western Intellectuals as betraying their basic obligation towards supporting the free expression of ideas.